Blog Featured Image: A Toxic Culture of Ingratitude

Gentlemen, let us suppose that man is not stupid… But if he is not stupid, he is monstrously ungrateful! Phenomenally ungrateful. In fact, I believe that the best definition of man is the ungrateful biped.

 Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground

In this post, we explore how gratitude is not an optional add-on to human authenticity but an integral component that enriches our lives. It liberates us from the perceived need to ‘act or perform’ for an audience; it is an epistemic virtue.

Problem of Self-esteem and Ingratitude

Dostoevsky’s claim that humans are “phenomenally ungrateful” is striking. While defining humanity solely in terms of ingratitude may be hyperbolic, he is onto something. Our immediate impression may be that ‘Greed’ and consumerism are responsible for our ingratitude. Another factor could be the fast-paced lifestyle that hardly leaves us with a moment to pause to realize what we ought to be grateful for. But let’s set these factors aside and focus on another underappreciated influencer: pride or self-esteem.

The suggestion that pride or the need for heightened self-esteem contributes to a culture of ingratitude is rooted in the idea that acknowledging external contributions to our well-being may be seen as a sign of weakness or dependency (toxic masculinity also comes to mind). Pride can make people habitually reluctant to express gratitude because it might imply that they couldn’t have achieved what they have on their own. This is relevant in a world where social media and aspirations often contribute to an inflated sense of self and an underappreciation of others’ roles in our achievements.

Social media platforms, for instance, are designed to highlight individual accomplishments and experiences; they often curate to show the best moments of one’s life. Meanwhile, educational systems and career paths increasingly emphasize personal achievements and pedigree; they deemphasize collective learning and projects. Prestigious prizes like the Nobel Prize depict an individualistic picture and undermine other scholars’ work that contributed to the Nobel Prize. Similarly, we glorify positive findings and undervalue negative findings and replication studies that contribute to the scientific communities.

These factors feed into a mentality prioritizing perceived independence and self-sufficiency, often at the expense of gratitude for the interdependencies that make our successes possible. Refraining from acknowledging the roles of others, historical influences, social conditions, or even luck in our achievements leads to a skewed perception of reality. It also feeds into the mindset that individuals feel primarily responsible for their accomplishments. Still, gratitude requires an awareness of our interconnectedness, how we rely on others, whether directly or indirectly, and the recognition that no one stands alone. This closely connects to epistemic virtures. In other words, overlooking other’s contributions via ingratitude is like throwing away evidence to capture the reality of our social world.

The cultural narrative inclined toward independence, individualism, and self-esteem contributes to a “culture of ingratitude.” By sidelining the importance of communal values and mutual appreciation, we may be turning into Dostoevsky’s “ungrateful biped,” who underappreciates the web of relationships and circumstances that enable our well-being. Of course, I am not trying to over-generalize; other factors influence our culture and our relationship to gratitude/ingratitude. My claim is that self-esteem is one of the significant factors that undermines the opportunity to express gratitude.

Gratitude is Authentic

If you are human, gratitude is authentic because one cannot escape social dependence; there is something one can genuinely become grateful about. This is not about creating an object of appreciation from thin air, like making something positive in the absence of anything good. The normative attitude of gratitude is rooted in Realism. Just as we ought to have the attitude of finding something positive, we ought to have the attitude of finding something we can be genuinely grateful for. But I will not argue why we should subscribe to the Realism of positivity or gratitude here.

But what is authenticity?

Authenticity refers to the quality of being genuine or true to one’s self. It’s about understanding who you are, acknowledging your strengths and weaknesses, and living in a way that aligns with your beliefs and values. Authentic individuals do not put on a facade; they do not pretend to be something they are not. But many fail to realize that authenticity also demands recognition of factors beyond oneself, for instance, other people’s roles, historical influences, social conditions, and even luck or fortune in one’s life.

Gratitude is the natural byproduct of this kind of self-awareness. When you recognize the role external factors have played in your life, you cultivate a sense of gratitude towards them. It is this gratitude that, in turn, enriches your authenticity. How can one claim to be genuine without acknowledging the various factors that have contributed to their becoming? One who fails to see the genuine contribution of others is in denial or unconsciously embracing a false state of reality.

Gratitude helps you recognize that your success is not a solo endeavor but a collective one involving the direct and indirect participation of others. Whether it is a parent’s sacrifices, a teacher’s guidance, a friend’s support, or societal structures that made your path smoother. Each has a role to play, and acknowledging this is both humbling and authentic because it is humbling.

I do not mean that there is no individual effort. Our epistemic responsibility is to acknowledge personal and collective efforts, including historical inheritance; modern culture still tends to emphasize the former and deemphasize the latter. We want to get to reality as closely as we can for epistemic and well-being’s sake. Self-esteem and individual accomplishments can also lead to personal growth and societal contributions; still, we want to identify the accurate level of personal (and others’) contribution.


We are like dwarfs sitting on the shoulders of giants. We see more, and things that are more distant, than they did, not because our sight is superior or because we are taller than they, but because they raise us up, and by their great stature add to ours.

John of Salisbury, Metalogicon (1159)

Social and Political Relevance

Those who feel threatened by others gaining equality (a well-deserved one) often fear the loss of their privilege. Some may also believe that the advancement of the marginalized must come at their expense, which is frequently true, but the cost of undoing privilege is justified. Their fear is compounded by a sense of ingratitude, which blinds them to the realities of their privilege and the inequities faced by others. Again, from pride, acknowledging others’ contributions or systemic disadvantages can undermine their sense of accomplishment. Consequently, ingratitude and a lack of empathy prevent us from social progress.

Suppose there are Emma’s family and a prestigious university known for its tradition of giving preference to legacy applicants (those whose parents or siblings attended the university). Emma is currently attending the university and has a multigenerational legacy status. Her younger brother, Jack, a mediocre student, is preparing to apply to the university. When the university announced the termination of legacy admissions, Emma’s family felt threatened and lost. They fear Jack’s chances of admission without the legacy advantage are significantly lower despite his qualifications.

Emma’s parents are vocal about their disappointment. They argue that their financial contributions to the university over the years should entitle their children to preferential treatment. However, this perspective overlooks the fact that legacy admissions have historically marginalized capable students from underrepresented backgrounds who did not have the same familial connections. By ending legacy admissions, the university aims to provide opportunities to a more diverse range of students, including those disadvantaged by systemic inequities. Emma’s family’s sense of ingratitude prevents them from seeing the broader societal ills. They focus on the perceived loss of their privilege rather than recognizing how legacy admissions perpetuated inequality.

Acknowledging the systemic advantages legacy students like Jack enjoyed and the disadvantages faced by equally qualified non-legacy applicants requires humility and empathy. However, Emma’s family’s pride in their legacy status makes it difficult to accept that their prior admissions were facilitated by inherited advantages. Ultimately, this ingratitude and lack of empathy hinder the university’s efforts to construct a more equitable and inclusive campus. By failing to appreciate the importance of undoing privilege for social progress, Emma’s family exemplifies how deeply ingrained systems of advantage can resist change, even when justified and necessary, from the standpoint of fairness.

Gratitude and Wellbeing

Lastly, here is an empirical point that connects to the discussion of this article. Gratitude has been increasingly recognized as a key component of emotional and psychological well-being within the scientific community and in popular discussions. But over-emphasis on independence sidelines opportunities for expressing gratitude.

Here’s how and why gratitude contributes to well-being:

  1. Strengthens Relationships: Showing appreciation can make others feel good about themselves and strengthen the bond between individuals, whether in friendships, family, or romantic partnerships.
  2. Encourages Compassion and Altruism: Grateful People are more likely to help others.
  3. Enhances Social Cohesion: Gratitude can act as a social glue that enhances group cohesion and social networks. A community that shares gratitude is generally more cooperative and happier.
  4. Increased Self-Esteem: Recognizing what you are grateful for and acknowledging the role of others in your accomplishments can significantly boost self-esteem.
  5. Enhanced Decision-Making: People who practice gratitude are often better at making decisions because they are less impulsive.
  6. Greater Sense of Purpose: Many people find that gratitude makes them more aware of their purpose in life, which is a significant factor in overall well-being.
  7. Existential Appreciation: Gratitude often involves appreciating simple, existential gifts like drinking a hot coffee.

Certainly! Here is the practical applications section in paragraph form:

To practice gratitude, we can adopt several activities. We can keep a daily or weekly gratitude journal. Mindfully expressing thanks to friends, family, and colleagues can strengthen relationships and boost personal happiness. Writing gratitude letters, even if unsent, allows reflection on the positive impact others have had. Acts of kindness can enhance a sense of gratitude and interconnectedness, and gratitude apps can provide daily reminders. Finally, developing a mindset that views challenges as opportunities for growth helps cultivate a sense of gratitude.

Conclusion:

Ingratitude can often be traced back to issues with self-esteem. When people are overly focused on themselves and their achievements, they may find it difficult to express gratitude, as doing so requires acknowledging that they didn’t accomplish everything on their own. This is often non-intentional; people develop the habit of ingratitude.

But I strongly believe gratitude is a normative notion because it is about well-being, the authentic self, and the practice of epistemic virtue (acknowledging evidence of others’ contributions).

A surreal, abstract painting featuring a cat writing on a piece of paper. The cat's face is expressive, with large, intense eyes and a serious expression. Its fur is a blend of dark and warm colors, creating a vivid and somewhat distorted look. The paper in front of the cat is filled with scribbled handwriting, adding to the mysterious and artistic feel of the image. The background consists of swirling colors and patterns, contributing to the overall dreamlike atmosphere of the scene.
The Underground Cat

Now, why not combine gratitude and mindfulness meditation? Prove Dostoevsky’s narrator from Notes from Underground wrong; you are not an ungrateful biped!


*Disclaimer: This article is a creative interpretation and synthesis work, drawing inspiration from multiple sources. While efforts have been made to ensure the accuracy of the information presented, readers are encouraged to consult the source material for a comprehensive understanding.

**I reserve the right to edit this page at my convenience.