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Why I think we need to acknowledge our privilege when practising gratitude

PHOTOGRAPHY BY LEXI LAPHOR

WORDS BY GEORGIE KIBEL

Because good vibrations will only get you so far.

Gratitude is the process by which you say “Thanks!” for all the wonderful things in your life by writing them down in a journal, telling a friend or even just making a mental note. And it’s not just new-age hoo-ha – studies show that those who practise gratitude often experience greater happiness and satisfaction in their lives.

Harvard Medical School even declared that gratitude “helps people feel more positive emotions, relish good experiences, improve their health, deal with adversity, and build strong relationships”.  

Despite becoming yet another 2020 buzzword (much like pivot, unprecedented and new normal), the concept has a long and meaningful history. Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism all promote the practice of gratitude by various means and for different purposes. Often, it is to show respect to a higher power and an appreciation for the path people believe they have been sent down. 

Ancient philosophers like Cicero and Seneca pondered how gratitude influences what it means to ‘be’, and how it contributes to a meaningful life. To these philosophers, gratitude was the foundation of civilisation and humanity – it was the answer to war, suffering and anarchy. 

In the contemporary world, gratitude has been advocated for by psychologists, healthcare professionals and personalities in the wellness space, and for good reason, too. As numerous studies show, it is proven to work.

I gave it a go myself, and found that after making a list of all the things around me that I love and am grateful for, my cold heart began to thaw. It put me in a tranquil mood. I can’t deny the visceral impact it had upon my emotional state.

As someone who has struggled to implement mindfulness and meditation into their life, I was pleasantly surprised by how easy it was to incorporate gratitude into my nightly routine. Because I looked forward to it, I didn’t feel like it was a chore nor did I make half-hearted excuses so I could skip it, brush my teeth and go to bed instead.  

This success prompted me to dive a bit deeper into the world of gratitude, and I was quickly seduced by the scores of influencers who spoke so highly of the process. More than that, I was genuinely surprised by the results that I was experiencing. 

After watching far too many YouTube videos and Instagram reels, I had heard story upon story about how gratitude completely changed the lives of those who practise it. I must admit, I was entranced by this unerringly positive community of grateful people who collectively insisted it was the key to their entire wellbeing. 

My deep dive eventually led me to a rather obscure world, where gratitude was identified as one of the main aspects of supernatural occult practices, like the law of attraction and manifestation. These processes are supposedly methods of bringing your thoughts into reality via harnessing energy and good vibrations, and they hang upon an individual’s ability to practise gratitude. 

And this is where my initial experience began to take on a different feel. I came to realise that practising gratitude might be such a perfect fit for me because I am middle class and White. 

What I noticed was that the people advocating for the more extreme version of practising gratitude, like manifesting physical objects, clearly had a lot to be thankful for in the first place. Without any mention of privilege or inherent advantage, these people insisted that the accumulation of cars, wealth, status and popularity was all due to the art of being thankful. 

Dream boards, journals, and good energy were all brought forth as evidence for the genuine impact that gratitude had upon these individuals. Not one of these influencers mentioned that their education, wealth, conventionally good looks or already large social media following could have played a massive role in helping them gain whatever they desired.

They simply drew a direct connection between being grateful for what they had, and then visualising what they desired. This, with some vague references to ‘hard work’, was seen as the key to gaining whatever they wanted in the world. 

So before I began telling my friends and family that they simply “must begin practising gratitude to change their life”, I had a think about when it would be entirely unhelpful, and even patronising to suggest. People in severe financial distress due to the pandemic may find it difficult to be grateful for even the little things, and to suggest they can manifest money may unintentionally come across as insensitive.

My friend who suffers from chronic illness may not be thrilled if I tell her to manifest better health into fruition. My Black and Indigenous friends and colleagues may feel as though I am privileged and out of touch if I suggest using this technique as a tool in overcoming systemic racism. 

To me, it seems difficult to imagine how this form of pseudoscience could massively benefit those born without some form of inherent privilege. 

This is not to say that only certain people can benefit from using such a technique, but to suggest that it can be used to overcome any of life’s challenges is untrue. To imply it will completely change an individual’s circumstances, no matter how dire they are, is audacious and potentially offensive. 

Manifesting a car or an apartment may be easy if you are wealthy, educated, statistically more likely to land a job and have a guaranteed income. But when people do not acknowledge their privilege and resources, gratitude is falsely determined as the sole reason for everything they’ve ever dreamed of happening with such ease.

Despite this, I know that gratitude is proven to be a worthwhile investment for your mental and physical health. I will continue to employ it in my own life, because I can’t deny the good state that it’s left me in. 

But I think it is important to acknowledge that sometimes trends and advice, particularly in the health space, can be elitist and exclusionary. Acknowledging when we are benefitting from historical, systemic injustice and recognising when we are unfairly advantaged is important – even when we are practising gratitude. 

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