If you come up with the crazy idea to look for happiness on the Internet, I guarantee that on almost every page returned by Google you will find the word “gratitude”. Gratitude – the key to happiness. My gains from the practice of gratitude. 50 things to be thankful for.
I have a severe allergy to such a narrative of gratitude and the way it is presented in pop psychology as a panacea for all difficulties.
Perhaps I react so harshly because I remember a time when I tried to open the door to happiness with this passkey. It was many years ago, when my mother had a brain tumour, we knew that she would die, and the disease had been going on for a long time, ruining my life plans one after another. I wanted to move to another town and focus on self-development, but I was taking care of my mum. I had been single for some time and, well, even though I took my mother for tests every once in a while, no exceptionally capable, sensitive and handsome surgeon became infatuated with me. I didn’t go to parties, I had to drop out of post-graduate studies and the life of a 30-year-old basically shrunk to work and home. Sometimes I went away for a while, met with my friends or went to a club, but I was still alone. And I was taking care of my mother by myself. My parents were divorced, I don’t have any siblings, and our extended family rarely contacted us.
After two years, not knowing how many more years like this lay ahead, I began to try out various recipes for happiness. Gratitude popped right out of the books, forcing itself onto me. Name five things you’re grateful for every night before you go to sleep. Better yet, note them down – create your own Great Book of Gratitude.
So I tried to make the most of it. When I thought about it, I had plenty to be thankful for. I was healthy, I worked as a journalist, which gave me a lot of joy, we were both financially secure, which is uncommon when there is a chronic illness in the family, I had different talents and beauty, I was still young, I had great friends. And, of course, there were all these “little wonders of everyday life”, as they call them in colourful magazines, like the shining sun, a cup of good coffee in the morning and hearing your favourite song on the car radio right after turning the key.
The problem was that it didn’t work at all. Fine, I was healthy, but what good is that when you have neurosis and you can’t stop thinking that you’re going to get sick like your mother soon? What’s the use in being pretty when you’re alone and your beauty passes with every fruitless day? I don’t care about talent if I have nowhere to put it, because I don’t live for myself. It was my friends who kept me sane, not gratitude.
Today, many years later, I think – in a rather matter-of-fact way – that dissatisfaction with what you have is quite useful in life. Especially for women.
Aren’t girls, and then young women taught to live according to the commandment “Enjoy what you have”? In our culture, isn’t a man supposed to be the conqueror, the pioneer, the explorer of new lands, while a woman’s task is to strain her eyes looking for any leftover crumbs of happiness which she could sweep away from the corners of the cave, the hearth and home that she is looking after?
In our culture, we have the figures of constantly dissatisfied missies and fussy princesses, whereas male wet blankets are impossible to come by in fairy tales, jokes and language, although we all know such men. Dissatisfaction, as well as ambition, sexual appetite or anger, is more appropriate for men.
And, actually, dissatisfaction is a great ally of women.
Women have had it rough since the dawn of time. When the Roman Empire decided to give food to the starving poor, only men received rations. Women not only weren’t allowed to study – they couldn’t learn at all. Goddess knows how much history was lost forever because potential female chroniclers were illiterate. In fact, women’s property always belonged to their fathers and then husbands, in the end being passed on to their children. The wealthiest female aristocrats were always dependent on male family members. Women were not allowed to travel on their own, and extravagance such as cycling aroused indignation. Finally, our sexuality, now only slightly shadowy, was considered pure pathology for centuries.
As we know, sexual dissatisfaction was thought to cause hysteria. It was treated with “genital massages” leading to orgasm.
In 1660, Nathaniel Highmore wrote that it was difficult to achieve success, despite the fact that the technique “is not very different from boys’ play, where participants try to rub their stomach with one hand and pat their head with the other”. For women, orgasm was a kind of aspirin for hysteria, whereas for doctors it involved an unpleasant procedure, because every patient needed individual treatment. I mean, you can’t expect the husband to burden himself with satisfying his wife, can you? And such privileges were available only here, in the West. In many countries, the problem was simply cut out – and it still is today – along with the clitoris.
Therefore, if we should be grateful for anything, it’s for the times our great-grandmothers got bloody dissatisfied with their lives. Dissatisfaction can be an excellent motivator for change. When managed well, it is like a torrential river which always finds its way through, avoids obstacles, meanders, sinks intruders, breaks dams and scours rocks. Isn’t it wonderful that suffragettes decided that being able to watch their husbands vote isn’t satisfying enough for them and got so mad that in the fight for voting rights they smashed shop windows with stones?
That young Maria Skłodowska was dissatisfied with not being admitted to university in Poland and left for the Sorbonne? That Zofia Stryjeńska was dissatisfied with the fact that the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich wouldn’t accept women as students, so she enrolled as Tadeusz Grzymała-Lubański?
That Alexandra David-Néel was so dissatisfied with what society had to offer to a woman that she just left it? Already as a child, she ran away from home and set off on her own, but was found by her panicked parents. Her husband was less fortunate: in 1911, Alexandra announced that she was going on another trip to India and promised to return after several months. Philippe didn’t see her for 14 years. But she became an orientalist, learned Sanskrit and as the first woman – dressed as a beggar – reached Tibet through the Himalayas. Not bad for a “dissatisfied missy”.
The “Enjoy what you have” rule is all too often and too literally adopted by women as a principle of life. There are countless studies proving that when women apply for a job, they don’t negotiate their rates as well as men and often even accept whatever they are offered. They don’t seek promotion, and when omitted, they don’t protest. Our attitude is perfectly reflected in the story of a friend of mine who – believe me – is really not a madam type. When she got pregnant for the third time, she immediately got scared that her boss would fire her at the first opportunity. As luck would have it, a month later the wife of a co-worker she shares a room with got pregnant. “My family is getting bigger, I have to ask for a raise,” the guy said. My friend was stunned by how striking the difference was.
And what about the fact that we, as Poles, still often claim that everything is fine as long as a man doesn’t drink, beat or cheat? And if she’s unhappy, it means that she’s a princess with a pea? And then no one can believe the statistics which show in black and white that in 80 percent of Polish homes most of the household duties are carried out by women. Well, they do the chores because they’re convinced that if they complain about their man being a chairwarmer, they will be stigmatised as dissatisfied missies.
There’s only one dissatisfaction discipline that we’re great at: self-dissatisfaction.
Suffice it to say, I don’t know any woman with straight hair who doesn’t want them curly and any woman with curls who doesn’t want straight hair. But enough about the body, we all know the subject. What’s worse is that we underestimate our competences and intellectual powers too. Most girls, when asked how they did on a test, bet on a worse mark than they get in the end. And boys? Would you be surprised if I said that they mostly overestimate their marks? Men apply for positions when they meet 60-70% of the requirements, whereas women often fail to notice that they meet all of them. Well, if someone thinks that their English is terrible, because in the last year they didn’t read Shakespeare’s works in the original, it can be difficult for them to feel that they can achieve something professionally.
I’m mercifully skipping our self-assessment as mothers because I don’t want to bring you down completely.
Nevertheless, you can’t deny that the matter of gratitude for what you have is complex. I would be all for promoting dissatisfaction and the insolent reaching for the juicy fruits of life, if not for the fact that they don’t grow right by the road, and once you get to the orchard, it’s easy to overeat and get sick.
I’m as far from wishful thinking as you can be. I’m sickened by the modern drive to have more and more of everything, as well as by the unreflective collecting of experiences. I know people who travel to the stunning, exotic places of the world, who skydive, swim with dolphins and do other things and none of it enriches them. These are only things that you need to tick off to be fashionable and to be able to consider yourself socially attractive. Professional or scientific successes can also be subjects of hidden wishful thinking: we seem to have a drive for knowledge and development, while it actually is simply a quest for prestige that allows us to maintain a fragile sense of self-worth.
Finally, you can be dissatisfied like Barbara Niechcic, and no one in their right mind would want to be her. Spending your whole life carrying a torch for a bedraggled guy with water lilies in his hand – come on now! Another perpetually disgruntled female character, Scarlett O’Hara, handled not having a man by her side much better. She didn’t get Ashley, but when fighting for him, she didn't give in to war, poverty, and bitterness.
I remember that during my mother’s illness I was so weighed down by worries that I once burst into tears in a bookshop, because while skimming through newspapers, I came across a story of a family with severely ill quintuplets. I actually felt – I know how awful this sounds – comforted by someone else’s misfortune. But I also know that you can’t tell anyone, “Don’t complain. What do you want? You have a home and a healthy child. What are the mothers of sick children to say?”
It doesn’t provoke gratitude. It’s like beating someone’s hands with a ruler – it doesn’t teach the multiplication table, it teaches fear of not knowing it. Saying to yourself, “I’m not supposed to want more because I already have a lot” when life really isn’t good enough, doesn’t help at all.
After my mum died, I really started feeling grateful. When I recovered from grief, I was only happy because I wasn’t suffering any more. A life without catastrophes was enough for me.
Natalia de Barbaro, a psychologist who organises workshops for women entitled “Własny pokój” (Your Own Room) says that there’s no point in repeating cheap affirmative maxims, like the character from “American Beauty”, who, in tears, mechanically recited clichés about how great she and her life is. “True gratitude is when I don’t throw my feelings in the trash. If it’s a beautiful day, the sun is rising, the child is eating breakfast and everything seems wonderful, but I still feel bad, I am at the parting of the ways,” says de Barbaro. “I can spray this wound with glitter. It’s a kind of aggressive procedure that women often do when they say to themselves, ‘I have no right to feel what I feel, because the sun is shining and I have a healthy child.’ Then gratitude becomes a forceful act.”
So what can we do? Take the other path: “When an unexpected guest comes, you can pretend that they haven’t come, but the problem is that they have and they’re there. If you leave them on the doorstep and lock the door, they’re still standing there. So, if there is dissatisfaction, discomfort, it’s good to first think about where this feeling is located in the body, and then put your hand there and take a few deep breaths. Emotions are facts, they come and linger. Fighting them only strengthens them. If I can tell myself, ‘Not everything in my life suits me, I don’t feel good about everything,’ then I’m able to feel sincere gratitude and I say to myself in the evening before going to bed that I am grateful that I have hot water at home and that my husband and son are downstairs. I do it naturally, not because an angry teacher tells me to be grateful.”
Gratitude for being healthy and having healthy children has stayed with me. But when I regained my vitality, I began to crave other things as well, and this pushes me forward.
The friend who was pregnant for the third time and trembled with fear of dismissal, quit and started her own business which is going quite well. She now has four children and although entrepreneurs in Poland are anything but sheltered, she doesn’t have the problem of being dependent on her boss any more.
I was wondering which of the literary heroines is a master of creative dissatisfaction on the one hand and true, sincere gratitude for what she has on the other. There’s only one queen: Anne Shirley. The way that girl could appreciate all the good things in her life and not suppress her appetite for more! She always remembered how much her life had changed thanks to Marilla and Matthew adopting her, she appreciated that she had a warm meal every day and fell asleep in clean sheets, and at the same time she still wanted her life to be fuller: she wanted to learn and be the best in class, have a beautiful dress with puff sleeves, find friendship and love. Perhaps she teaches us best that you can have both a cheerful face and the occasional wrinkled nose.
“Tenderness and freedom. Let's build balanced relationships” is a campaign run by Kulczyk Foundation along with “Wysokie Obcasy” and “Gazeta Wyborcza Foundation”.
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