There is an idea from the positive-thinking end of psychology that regularly expressing gratitude makes you happy. Some people make every day a day of thanksgiving. There’s a lot to be said for that. You can spend your energies on the half of the glass that’s empty, or you can be energised by the half that’s full. As Victor Frankl wrote in his book on surviving the Holocaust, Man’s Search for Meaning: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances.”
It’s one thing for you to choose your attitude—to accentuate the positive in your life, for example, or to give thanks. But it’s quite another for someone else to demand it. Not even your psychotherapist, or Bing Crosby, and certainly not your government, have the right to that. To eliminate the negative, even if that were possible, would be to deny the reality of your situation, your feelings, and an important part of you.
On a national level, positive thinking decrees carry a kind of totalitarian message of the continue-flogging-until-morale-improves variety. There’s something slightly creepy about Bhutan’s state-mandated “happiness” initiative, or the United Nations’ “International Day of Happiness.”
To Native Americans, Thanksgiving is a travesty—it should be a day of mourning. University of Texas professor Robert Jensen argues for turning it into a National Day of Atonement to acknowledge the genocide of America’s indigenous people. Not a day devoted to celebrating colonialism. Ben Norton recently summarized the double standard of powerful nations in Salon (“This is why they hate us”). Western governments will make stirring speeches about freedom and democracy at home, then hope no one notices when they prop up appalling dictators, fund terrorists and destroy democratically elected governments overseas. As president Franklin D. Roosevelt’s is alleged to have said about the brutal Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza: “He may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.” Along similar lines, American scholar Noam Chomsky's novel idea for how his nation could reduce the level of terrorism around the world was: “Stop participating in it.”
Anyway...if you want to feel grateful today, good for you. If you want to feel other things as well, or instead, that’s OK, too. What you feel is what you feel, and when other people demand that you feel something different, you often do: irritated.
French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan noted that even when we offer an innocent, well-meaning “Enjoy!” to someone as they set off for a night out, or an adventurous holiday, it can sound like a kind of command. Such an imperative, or implied duty, denies the value of other responses, and of other, less rose-tinted and perhaps sometimes richer experiences of life.
“Have a nice day.” Or don’t.
Whenever a hapless waiter or cashier would utter those words to the late Sir Peter Ustinov, he would turn and reply: “Thank you, but I have other plans.”