In particularly hard times such as these, when the news cycle is unavoidable and we don’t have ready access to our usual distractions and outlets, gratitude is a tricky subject.
For many, these periods bring some clarity. We’re more aware than ever of what we have to be thankful for, and the positions we’re lucky to be in. There’s always a bright side, after all. But while it’s important to keep perspective of the privileges we hold and luxuries we have, even in strict lockdowns, it can be a slippery slope into the insidious pits of toxic positivity — that is, the denial of negative emotion that works to trivialise grief.
Not only do we do a disservice to others by painting over these feelings of anguish, but in telling ourselves that Everything Is Fine, we put undue pressure on ourselves to become self-fulfilling prophecies of love and light, and kind of miss the point in the process. And telling someone to ‘stay positive' during times of crises is just about as helpful as telling someone to ‘calm down’ during an argument.
On the other hand, what’s the alternative? Succumb to the despair and stay in bed? Not ideal — for most, anyway. Well, the answer may just be hidden in a 75-year-old book.
‘Tragic optimism’, as revived by an article in The Atlantic by cognitive scientist and humanistic psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman, is a term originally coined by writer, psychiatrist and psychotherapist Viktor Frankl in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning. The book chronicled his experiences in a concentration camp in World War II, identifying the psychotherapeutic methods that enabled him to remain hopeful.
In his life, Frankl faced unimaginable calamity. And in no way does he proclaim that tragedies can be willed away, or that his experiences are relatable in any way — something toxic positivity can be guilty of glossing over. But instead, what Kaufman highlights, is how the idea of ‘tragic optimism’ can be a more practical and emotionally satisfying way of looking at things rather than simply denying our feelings of loss.
What it really comes down to is looking for meaning, beyond what we’ve lost — the acceptance that life is inevitably filled with setbacks and tragedies of all scales, and that identifying ways of growth and gratitude are essential to navigating our lives during times of adversity. Speaking to the impact of this more grounded version of gratitude, Kaufman notes that “a common misconception is that gratitude is necessarily self-serving, that it’s all about appreciating my life and my blessings, in spite of the suffering of others,” concluding that the point is really to be open to empathy and humility in a way where you’re not beating yourself up for feeling overwhelmed or anguished.
The real key is in learning how to adopt gratefulness, a sustained mindset, over fleeting moments of gratitude — something we’re all a little guilty of indulging in. Though it’s easier said than done, there is a tonne of merit in consistently checking in with your blessings and looking for ways to maintain these over the constant pursuit of looking for more.
In 2021, there’s a lot going on in the world, and as many of us remain locked down in Australia for the foreseeable future, the panic and eco-anxiety can weigh heavy. For what it’s worth, there’s no need to be in denial of your loss, but to take a leaf out of the book of tragic optimism, keeping perspective, doing our part and checking what we have to be grateful for are ways we can see through these times. Employing some kind of optimism is so important, even when lockdowns begin to weigh heavy, but no one needs to put a bright spin on their losses.