The Modern Survival Guide #72
This is the Modern Survival Guide, a guidebook I’m writing for things I think people need to know about living in the modern world. The views expressed here are mine, and mine alone. As it happens, I’m grateful for a lot of things, but I’ve learned through the years that if there is one inescapable truth of human nature, it is this:
Gratitude is temporary, and very conditional.
Surely you’ve noticed how this works. You do something nice for someone else — give them a compliment, give them a gift, provide them a service, etc. — and they feel grateful towards you. Their opinion of you goes up. Then, somehow, you screw up. Suddenly all that gratitude vanishes, and people treat the screw-up as the most important thing.
This article will talk about how that becomes a survival issue for you. Because make no mistake… it will. Maybe not on the same the level as Al Franken, for example, but each of us will mess something up in our lives, and the goodwill we have built up will seem to vanish. How does this work? How should we address it?
The Nature of Gratitude
To begin, let’s take a look at the nature of gratitude, which is to say, what makes it temporary? Why is it that most of us fall into the “what have you done for me lately” camp? You’d think that we should be wired to remember the people who do good things for us, and value them as long-term positive forces in our lives, even in the face of temporary adversity or bad behavior.
But we don’t. We do not evaluate people in our lives on a fair playing field. We tend to demonize them for the harm they inflict, as opposed to judging it against the good they do. Why?
Psychology seems to indicate that we are predisposed to weight negative events more strongly than positive ones when recalling them. This may make sense from an evolutionary perspective: the people who had a good memory of bad things remembered not to eat those berries, or go near that watering hole, or hook up with that caveperson with the weird lumps on their genitals. And then they passed that information (and behavior) on to their descendants. The people who focused on bad stuff may have simply outlived and out-competed the folks who were predisposed to focus more on the good things.
From this angle, I think this may be a piece of why gratitude is fleeting: bad things are often permanent, whereas good things are usually temporary. Bad things often include diseases, injuries, debts, and other long-term effects that last for many years, if not a lifetime.
From another angle, I think it’s instructive to recognize that we tend to take bad things personally. If someone insults me, I have a much stronger reaction than if they do something nice. If I get in a car wreck, my reaction is likely to be “why me?” Again, this may be evolutionary, it may simply be an example of emotions turning on and the brain turning off, or it might just be an example of the narcissism of the human condition. It may simply be that we are better suited to being offended than we are to being grateful.
Good things, on the other hand, are usually favors, compliments, or interventions — useful, but not likely to last past a meal, a conversation, or a season. And good things are usually dependent on interpersonal relationships, which are very rarely stable over long periods, and feature multiple recurring interactions — all of which is to say that your friend today may be your enemy tomorrow. I think this probably has an effect on our valuation of the good things in life.
The Questions of Gratitude
Gratitude is nonetheless very important in our society. It helps us identify our friends, it creates links of obligation and respect, and it tends to make us nicer to each other. In other words, it promotes social capital¹ and that’s a very good thing. But it’s temporary, and it’s fragile.
I think this is why we all often engage in “what have you done for me lately” behavior, and this makes sense from a certain point of view. If the things for which we normally feel gratitude are typically not permanent, then it makes sense for us to expect repeated instances of good events in order for us to maintain the same sense of gratitude. And if bad things are usually more hurtful than good things are helpful, it makes sense to place a higher value on blame than gratitude. In this perspective, we are assigning gratitude in proportion to the event which prompted it.
But this methodology tends to break down for larger events and, in particular, over time. Someone who does something really good in their youth can have the gratitude associated with that event wiped out by a misstep later in life, as a general rule; conversely, someone who spends their life doing good can be easily undone by the revelation of something bad they did in youth.
Does this make sense? I’m seriously asking. Because, and this is the key point, almost all of us are going to screw up sooner or later. Again, maybe not to the level of Al Franken. But let’s be brutally honest, at least with ourselves: haven’t you done something, at some point, that would change people’s opinions of you if it came out in public? And I’d like to make this very clear, I am not defending bad behavior, and I’m not normalizing it. I’m just saying… most of us have done at least one bad thing. Does that define you? Of course it does. We are, in part, what we do. But should it define everything about you?
In the age of social media, mass information, and long lifespans, this presents a quandary: how should we, as a society, best assign gratitude and blame? Do we allow one bad act to cancel out a lifetime of good as a general rule? Do we assign utilitarian values to actions and try to balance things out? Do we make it up as we go along, based on how well someone nails their contrition speech or apology? These are questions we are wrestling with as a society, and they affect you. Because, you know, you’re part of society too.
4 Lessons on Gratitude
I think there are a number of lessons that we can draw from the way our society currently treats issues of gratitude. I’ve listed four of them here:
- 1. Gratitude is important; therefore, we should remember the things for which we grateful. This helps us keep track of the people and events that have assisted our lives, and it may have some psychological benefits to boot.
- 2. Gratitude is fickle; therefore, we should not expect that those who feel grateful to us now will do so indefinitely. We should expect them to behave along the lines of “what have you done for me lately.”
- 3. Gratitude is trumped by blame; therefore, we should not assume that one good act will outweigh a bad act. We should assume that a bad act will outweigh a lifetime of good in the public forum.
- 4. Gratitude is myopic; therefore, we should expect people to value current and future acts as proportionally more important than past actions.
That seems kind of bleak, so I want to make something clear, I’m not ragging on gratitude here. I’m not lessening its importance or necessity in a well-functioning society. This is simply how it seems to work, at least in my experience, and I think it’s easier to deal with a thing if we understand it first.
My suggestion here is simple: gratitude is important to your life, so treat it with respect. Do not become complacent. Do not expect one good act to outweigh a bad one. Do not let yourself believe that you are so beloved that you have a free pass. Do not expect people to like you forever based on something you did a long time ago. And life will probably be less frustrating and make more sense.
¹Social capital: the networks of relationships among people who live and work in a particular society, enabling that society to function effectively.