The Problem With Gratitude

It’s hard not to be overwhelmed with gratitude when you first step onto Harvard’s campus. We have access to an unimaginable wealth of resources at this school. Naturally, this sense of gratitude can act as a form of positivity. Recently, positive psychologists have raved about gratitude and its relation to happiness. Studies on depression in undergraduate students suggest that gratitude can help raise self-esteem levels and therefore even decrease suicidal ideation.

But I have a problem with gratitude—namely how it can act as a form of complacency. Though all of us are lucky to be at this school, living in a constant state of crippling indebtedness to this institution can also get in the way of progress. Furthermore, over-enforcing gratitude can invalidate voices of criticism, many of which belong to marginalized students who face very real and relevant issues at this school.

This sense of undying gratitude can come from many sources, including internal ones. The Harvard Bureau of Study Council’s “I’m a First-Gen: Am I the Only One Who?” document notes that many first-gen students feel guilty for simply being here at Harvard and surrounded by all its myriad resources, especially in light of those who are not as lucky back home. If first-gen students like me feel guilty for simply being surrounded by so many resources, how guilty must we feel for wanting more?

More often, however, marginalized students at elite institutions have to deal with others who tell them to be grateful. They portray these “ungrateful” students as asking for too much. When I attended prep school, one of my teachers failed to submit my recommendations for the Gates Millennium Scholars Program, which provides full scholarships and a support network to low-income college students. I asked an adult member of the school community to call the Gates Foundation (which sponsors the scholarship program) to look for a solution, explaining the difficulty of my transition to prep school as a full-financial aid, first-gen student without such a program. While he celebrated my hard work and the challenges I had overcome, he subtly let me know my place in that school: He told me that life was hard and that I should simply be grateful for the opportunities that had been handed to me in life.

This outside over-enforcement of gratitude further perpetuates the sense that the voices of underrepresented students don’t matter. When students of color at Bowdoin became increasingly vocal after the Michael Brown shooting, one of the students, Caroline Martinez, wrote in a column in the Bowdoin Orient that they were told to “just be grateful that we’re here and suck it up.” Martinez continued, “I am grateful for Bowdoin’s efforts to try to even the playing field…. But I also feel that my sense of gratitude has kept me and many students quiet for a while, and now that we’re speaking out, there seems to be a type of backlash. Students of color who want their elite institutions to change have been painted as privileged, whiny kids. There is an attitude of, ‘Shut up and be grateful.’”

I don’t want to demonize gratitude. Instead, we should be wary of confusing gratitude with complacency. Every day, I walk into Annenberg and see the portrait of Richard Theodore Greener, the first African-American to graduate from Harvard. I often walk by Radcliffe Yard—where female students studied for so long—and I get to enjoy events held by the First Generation Student Union, surrounded by so many peers whose backgrounds wouldn’t have been represented at this university 50 years ago. Every day, I celebrate progress, and I am grateful for it.

But every day, I also grapple with the fact that this institution has been investigated twice by the federal government for its compliance with Title IX in recent years, has yet to expand its freshmen gender-neutral housing, and proposed a contract that would have increased healthcare costs for dining hall workers.

More than the gratitude I feel for this institution, I am grateful for those before me who have spoken up against the status quo and worked tirelessly to make this school and society at large a better place for all of us to live. I am grateful for those who continue to speak up despite the backlash that they face. We should all take time to celebrate how far we have come in improving our society, but we should not shy away from thinking about the ways we can continue to improve. It’s not ingratitude to expect better from the society you live in—it’s progress.


Julie S. Chung ’20 lives in Thayer Hall.

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