The tyranny of thanks

It was my turn to do the Evening Standard column…

Recall the last time a child – perhaps your niece or nephew, your son or daughter – said thank you to you. How delighted were you by their gratitude? How warm was the glow inside? And now think again.

What kind of pressure was on that child to be grateful at your largesse? Would they have received a metaphorical clip around the ear had they remained silent, or worse harrumphed?

Saying thanks is a deeply ambivalent task. Fay Weldon recognised as much when she noted: ‘My children are ungrateful: they don’t care. That is my great reward. They are free.’

But the compulsion to say thank you is increasing, thanks in part to self-help (and note the barb in that use of ‘thanks’). They’re called gratitude diaries. The idea is that you make a note of things that happened today for which you can be grateful. It might be help at the checkout, or a tasty sandwich at lunch. The advice is to recall them later and watch how the habit makes you more appreciative of things, and increases you happiness.

But I’m suspicious of this tyranny of thanks. For one thing, the advice is infantalizing: it’s the self-help equivalent of the parent who chastises: ‘Johnny, what do you say?’, ‘Jemma, what’s the magic word?’

For another, it might also nurture a habit of lying. The problem is that thanks cannot be reverse-engineered. True gratitude springs from within, it is not forced from without. To habitually offer thanks is as false as the call-centre operator’s, ‘Hello, how is your day?’ It’s a form of manipulation, turned in on yourself.

Your lack of gratitude might, in fact, be telling you something very important. It may express a restlessness with your life. It may capture the truth that the daily grind is grinding you down, not lifting you up. You may well do better to attend to that, rather than papering over the cracks with faux-cheerful appreciation. Keeping a gratitude diary may not lead to your happiness, but to the burial of your discontent.

So don’t say thanks unless you feel it. Instead, be true to yourself, listen to yourself. You may well discover something significant – something with more of a chance of making life better than the cheesy, uneasy word of thanks.