Michelle Quist: Gratitude and some uncomfortable self-reflection

Social media seemed a strange place for an LDS campaign on positivity and growth.

(AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File) This April 26, 2017, file photo shows the Twitter app icon on a mobile phone in Philadelphia.

This is the season for love and service and giving, and it’s a joy that we’re finally here — the end of 2020. Most agree that the year can’t end soon enough.

Self-reflection at the end of each year is healthy. But I recently found myself mired in uncomfortable self-reflection as I considered my response to recent social media campaigns encouraging gratitude and positivity and growth. (How dare they!)

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints recently promoted a campaign to post about gratitude on social media for seven days. Social media — at least in Utah — was flooded with posts about love and thankfulness for family members, jobs, warm homes, good friends and every other conceivable blessing enjoyed in our prosperous country.

I hated it. And I was so annoyed with myself that I hated it.

My brain knew that my friends were authentic. And my brain knew that practicing gratitude really does help invite joy into a person’s life by helping them become less self-absorbed.

And yet, I was so bugged with social media I couldn’t sign on.

Part of my discomfort was the idea of a prosperity gospel — that those who obey will be blessed with prosperity and physical blessings. Except it doesn’t always work that way for some faithful followers.

I also have an aversion to “thankfulmonies” — personal testimonies in church that consist of expressions of thanks to those they love as opposed to testimonies of gospel principles. Ideally, expressions of thanks to those we love should be made frequently, in person, as opposed to over the pulpit. And, I thought, over social media.

The power and reach of social media are fascinating. Social media is designed to connect with other people. We engage with “friends” through pictures and posts and comments. But social media exists to monetize our interactions and our online activities. If you haven’t watched The Social Dilemma yet, you should.

Our current state of constant outrage over political and social circumstances is fueled by social media. That’s why, in part, we were asked to post about things we’re grateful for — to change the narrative and push positivity into the world instead of negativity.

Brooklyn College professor Ana P. Gantman and Yale psychologist William J. Brady found that posts that use moral and emotional words — like lewd, kill, evil, faith, love — are more effective in gathering attention on social media — sometimes as much as 20% more effective. The negative moral experience of outrage is certainly attention-grabbing, but positive moral messages also increase engagement.

The funny thing is, our brains react to the social approval of our outrage posts the same way as our gratitude posts. We have quantified social feedback with likes and dislikes and comments, and as smart animals we learn from the feedback and play into it.

While outrage leads to engagement on social media, it doesn’t often lead to change. We become numb to the outrage. I guess I worried we would become numb to the gratitude as well. And I worried our gratitude would become currency for our brain’s need for the rush of approval from friends.

I also worried for those who see social media posts and can’t help but compare the seemingly perfect lives of their friends with their own. I admit, I’m glad my friends are grateful for their perfect marriages. And those same posts made me pretty sad I don’t enjoy the same blessing.

I also worried about the tendency of many church members to take a prophet’s request as a commandment, and the accompanying tendency to then judge everyone else by how closely they’re obeying.

The agitator in me resisted participation just so that others could judge me, and I, of course, would be confident in my self-righteous knowledge of my own relationship with God, even without posting how thankful I am for my healthy kids or my safe house or my warm bed and stack of books.

But because of my attitude, I didn’t share joy and positivity into the world. And that’s a missed opportunity. (I know — I still can, even without being asked.)

So what am I grateful for?

I’m grateful for my friends and their willingness to post about what they’re thankful for. The posts brought joy into my life, and I’m sure theirs as well. Gratitude really does work that way.

I’m grateful that not everyone questions everything, like I do. My need to criticize is exhausting, and sometimes it’s nice to just see the benefits of doing that which you’re asked.

Finally, I’m grateful that life is often uncomfortable. I’m grateful this year is almost over. And I’m grateful — especially during this season — for the two great commandments that encompass all others: to love God and to love your neighbor. I’ll keep working on my feeble attempts at those.

Michelle Quist.

Michelle Quist is a Salt Lake City attorney and a columnist for The Salt Lake Tribune.

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