Column: The Selfish Side of Gratitude

©artwork by Charles Bals / Another Slang

For a quick laptop and smartphone break, sometimes I disappear on the treadmill, duck into the sauna afterwards, and follow it all with a peaceful shower and the chance to dry my hair without any time constraints. In the relaxation room of the holy place where all of this takes place, quite practically newspapers are still left out (haptic! real print!) so that, depending on my mood and the day, I can scan the front page of either the Süddeutschen Zeitung or the New York Times.

One of these occasions occurred a few days ago, and I wound down while reading “The Selfish Side of Gratitude“. That last one is a buzzword (awful expression) that follows me around: in my favorite Los Angeles restaurant of the same name, even the wait staff asks as they clear the plates, “So what are you grateful for today, Julia?”, something that was mildly confusing on the first visit and then never again.

The term pops up in the trailer for Judd Apatows (the producer of Girls) new series Love on Netflix, and now in all detailed glory in this article. Once again, it’s about studies that prove that all altruistic behavior is, in the end, propelled by a egotistical drive: you doesn’t only feel better, apparently you also live longer (“stronger immune system”) and in harmony with your social surroundings.

But what does that mean exactly, and what are we supposed to do? Say thank you as much as possible? Thank you, darling Veronika, that you’re such a wonderful partner to me every day. Thank you, darling parents, for everything in any case. Thank you, dear yoga teacher, for this great class. Thank you, dear treadmill, for the runner’s high. Thank you, dear fellow human beings, for the inspiring speeches, for jumping into dicey situation, to good friends for listening and chatting, and thank you, darling cat, that you set my brain one day on standby.

Strictly speaking, you would never come out of the state of saying thank you ever again, and would actually be wonderfully busy all day long. But, does it really mean that? When does one experience a real thank you, from one’s deepest heart? Don’t we say it anyhow? Or is it forgotten every now and then? The principle is evident: in the same moment that one makes these opposite thank yous, self-centeredness is jiggling around in the background. “Don’t ask what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” American president John F. Kennedy threw that out into the air during his inaugural address, and he was closer to present current events than he really could have dreamed.

In principle, I have nothing against being thankful. But, Harvard Mental Health Letter’s suggestion to put what your thankful for in writing, once a month, just appears too systematic to me. Yes, of course I’m thankful for a warm home, my good life so far and all the possibilities and niceties that has included—the setbacks included, as I grew from them. This statement is enough for me though, when it comes over me in erratic moments and I can address the rest of the day completely in the now and can devote myself to the pragmatic things in life. And preferably, without someone trying to talk me into have a bad conscious about not being thankful yet today. If that is egotistical? Not anymore so than saying thank you because you expect something from it.

Translation: Alicia Reuter



Julia co-founded one of the first fashion blogs in Germany in 2007 and became a freelance consultant for digital strategies after publishing her first book in 2010. After an eventful four years with Condé Nast working mainly in the digital department of Vogue Germany, she decided to launch her own online magazine with her dream partner, Veronika Heilbrunner. She is based in Berlin and loves to read books.