12/27/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Gratitude, or Platitudes?

"Gratitude is merely the secret hope of further favors."
Francois de La Rochefoucauld

One Thanksgiving when I was very little my grandfather noticed the untouched Brussels sprouts on my plate. "Finish them," he admonished. "Be grateful for what you have! Think of the starving children of Armenia!" Thereafter the starving children of Armenia, at least those who hadn't moved to Glendale, became the subjects of my family's default admonition every time my brothers and I didn't sufficiently appreciate our food. Only occasionally were we off the hook, like the time my mom so overcooked a steak, she couldn't find it in the oven.

I'm as grateful as the next guy. I blogged a couple of weeks ago about just how profoundly grateful I am for the blessings I've been given.

But I don't like to be told that I SHOULD be grateful. Roget's synonyms for gratitude include "sense of obligation" and "thanksgiving." Real thanksgiving arises naturally and flows freely, obligation only grudgingly.

When Thanksgiving rolls around, I often recall my conversation with a Jewish woman who worshipped an Indian guru. Explaining that she was on the path to universal forgiveness and gratitude, she movingly described how she'd finally come to forgive and appreciate her difficult parents, who after all were only doing the best they could. She'd even forgiven and expressed gratitude to the guru himself, whose no-exceptions policy of renunciation of sexual activity didn't stop him from sleeping with her.

But, she told me, there was one obstacle left: she was still working on forgiving Hitler. Where Hitler was concerned, even she drew the line on gratitude.

Then there's our economic mess. It's not all the fault of greedy bankers and idiotic government policies. Well, maybe it is; but it's also our way of life. First, our consumer culture exhorts us to buy stuff, as when "W" sent us on a shopping spree after 9/11. Then the Oprah/New Age culture kicks in, reminding us to be grateful for all that stuff. The cycle is complete when our self-help culture tells us how happy this will make us. Then we get more stuff because we've become so happily grateful, and so on.

This being America, there's even a science of gratitude, with books like "Thanks! How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier," by Professor Robert Emmons. Thanks, prof! I'm so grateful you've helped make my point!

The thing is, true gratitude exists only for its own sake. You can't manufacture it. And if you try to practice it so it will make you happier, you can be sure it won't.

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