A Nihilist's Guide to Gratitude

Abandon expectations, appreciate everything.

Waffle Cafe, Chicago (Kiichiro Sato / AP)

This week the eminent New York Times in-house philosopher David Brooks laments that he is “sometimes grumpier when [he] stay[s] at a nice hotel,” as compared with a “budget hotel” where even “the waffle maker in the breakfast area is a treat.”

Brooks has said many contentious things in his tenure with the Times, but the insinuation that a waffle maker is ever not a treat is a moment that will mar his career with particular shame. A waffle iron turns goo into a hot waffle that can be covered in sugar and stuffed in your mouth in minutes. You just pour in a personal serving of liquefied white flour, and then there is a buzzer, and then you flip the waffle iron over, and it works consistently and predictably. A waffle iron is always a treat and demands to be regarded accordingly.

But for Brooks, the phenomenon comes down to expectations. At a “nice” hotel, waffle-flipping is an imposition. This is a nice hotel; someone else should be flipping my waffle. Or it should be some new kind of waffle that requires no flipping at all. The astronauts probably have that. Or, you know what, it should be a crepe. Where ARE the crepes? Nowhere? My morning is ruined.

When David Brooks’s expectations are met, he is happy. When they are not, he is grumpy. In this way, Brooks is human. Regardless of how lofty or languid any particular expectation may be, the difference in happiness between one met expectation and another met expectation is small. An expensive hotel sets high expectations that are begging not to be met. A budget hotel is poised to knock your socks off with a waffle iron.

I wrote about this phenomenon last spring in a post titled “Always Make Promises.” At that point, based on social psychology research, I became convinced that making promises was a great way to set expectations for other people in my life. If I know what’s expected of me, that means less pressure. And I can make sure I’m meeting expectations (making people happy) instead of drifting around in a nebulous cloud of needs and wants and mystery. I promise you we will go on one date this weekend. That’s an example from romance. It keeps a romantic partner from sitting at home waiting for a text thinking, hey, where’s my stupid date. It keeps me from wondering if I’m doing enough date stuff. It’s great romance. It also works well with employers. By promising to complete a certain number of things by a certain date, research says you can actually make your boss more impressed than if you did more things more quickly and there was no concrete expectation in play.

But pretend for a moment that not everyone in your life is as considerate as I am, always making clear and concrete promises and fulfilling them. In that case, Brooks argues that cultivating gratitude is the answer. Indeed, experiencing gratitude has been shown in many studies to improve people’s wellbeing. “Gratitude is a sort of laughter of the heart,” writes Brooks. At this point I became sick, choking it back at first gracefully and then unsuccessfully. He seems to have stolen a line from my novel Laughter of the Heart. Gratitude, he continues, “comes about after some surprising kindness.”

Traditionally, yes. But how do you decide what kindness is surprising? Can you choose to be surprised by any kindness, and receive it with gratitude? Brooks calls this “dispositional gratitude,” wherein people learn to “preserve small expectations.” That is, don’t really expect anyone to do much if anything for you ever, and then it’s always a nice surprise. He offers examples of a world where people have grateful dispositions: “We’re grateful to people who tried to do us favors even when those favors didn’t work out. … We’re grateful because some people showed they care about us more than we thought they did. We’re grateful when others took an imaginative leap and put themselves in our mind, even with no benefit to themselves.” (I don’t know what that last one means.)

Depending on how you look at this argument, and I think it’s the correct way to look at this argument, it could read as super bleak. The bleakest of the bleak is this point:

If you think that human nature is good and powerful, then you go around frustrated because the perfect society has not yet been achieved. But if you go through life believing that our reason is not that great, our individual skills are not that impressive, and our goodness is severely mottled, then you’re sort of amazed life has managed to be as sweet as it is.

So, in sum, human nature is not good or powerful. Remember that, and you’ll be much happier. Never expect a waffle iron, because goodness is mottled. Heaven help you if you expect crepes.