It’s Thanksgiving week here in America. This means that everyone is overwhelmed with emotional reminders that family is important, forgiveness and charity are essential, and purchasing stuff made in China is the tie that binds American families together.

American citizens are nothing more than an audience for Walmart and Macy’s, and really, you’re only an audience member if you meet the credit threshold and can prove your bona fides by standing outside on Thanksgiving evening to cash in on the latest doorbusters at Best Buy.

When capitalism and sentimentality come together, the consumer always loses. And while I expect devious behaviors from big box retailers and online behemoths, I’m always a little sad when I see leadership consultants and self-help gurus applying the same marketing principles to sacred acts such as gratitude.

Just this week, men and women I respect have told me to buy gratitude jars and gratitude journals. Yoga instructors have invited me to take gratitude walks as part of a broader email and Facebook marketing strategy. And people in my little community of HR bloggers have been writing about gratitude as if it’s a commodity that can be acquired through an American Express Platinum card.

The message of commercialized, widespread gratitude is harmless enough except that it assumes that the audience isn’t grateful in the first place, or worse yet, not grateful enough. And if only we’d follow the advice of a life-coach-slash-blogger on the internet and look inward a little more, and possibly buy a book or an item, we might be happier.

That’s very insulting, and it’s also wrong.

Having just stepped off a plane from Havana, I can tell you with great specificity that I am extraordinarily grateful for my life.

* I have always had indoor plumbing, which means that I’ve never had to urinate or defecate on the street.
* I don’t purchase my rice and beans using a ration card, and I’ve never had to make tough, nutritional choices because of sanctions and an embargo.
* Most of all, I’ve never had to sell my body to tourists looking for a good time. It is something that many men, women, and children cannot say.

I know that my friends and colleagues mean well. They have big hearts, and they want to sell you a gratitude jar (or whatever) because they care about you. But the commercialization of gratitude makes me think of how the Catholic church sold indulgences. First you’ll buy gratitude jars and journals. Next you’ll be able to buy a twelve-pack of gratitude on Black Friday at Sears.

I believe that expressing gratitude is a personal, private matter. For many of us, it’s a practice where some days are better than others. But if you ever find yourself in a place where it seems like a good idea to buy a mechanism to help you express gratitude, you may want to stop yourself before your credit card is swiped. Please go find someone who is professionally trained to help you gain a new perspective on life, love, and meaning in this world. Have a conversation. Create daily intentions that are born out of genuine love and support, not a marketing campaign.

Thanksgiving is a lovely reminder to be kind and generous. Leadership consultants and gurus create amazing content that can help us look inward. But no amulet, charm or gratitude journal will change your life and help you to find happiness and peace in the world. That change begins with you.


  1. A very insightful, and sobering, perspective. I am completely with you on how gratitude has been co-opted as a marketing hook.

    Funny thing about the Catholic Church selling indulgences. Things like that can have unexpected consequences — like Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation. The indulgences were the the flash point that drove Luther to say, “enough!”

    I wonder: when will we say enough with gratitude being taken over to market stuff to people? Will we have the courage that Luther did?

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