A holiday season of gratification or gratitude?

November 26, 2020 8:00 am

(Creative Commons photo via Pxhere)

Gratification and gratitude share the same Latin root, gratus, or “pleasure.” We may experience gratification when we shop for a gift and express gratitude when we receive one.

During the holidays, according to secular and religious traditions, we should feel and convey gratitude. As the year winds down, it’s an ideal time for reflection and appreciation for life’s blessings. Too often, however, we are busy shopping online seeking gratification with products delivered within a few days by Amazon, Wal-Mart, eBay and other digital vendors.

Delayed gratification used to be a virtue, postponing immediate rewards in anticipation of greater ones in the future. Not so much anymore.

Marketers operate on the concept of instant gratification, which Entrepreneur magazine defines as “the desire to experience pleasure or fulfillment without delay or deferment. Basically, it’s when you want it; and you want it now.”

According to Freud’s pleasure principle, humans strive to sate basic needs such as hunger, thirst, sexual desire and other drives. Most of us take those needs for granted, without considering the thousands in Iowa who go to bed hungry or who suffer from loneliness or anxiety. One in 10 Iowans and 1 in 7 children cope with food insecurity. One in 5 lives with some form of mental illness.

Gratification is short-lived and potentially costly and addictive. We have to repeat the activity to get the same pleasurable feeling. When it comes to compulsive online shopping, the experience of pleasure quickly fades, prompting people to buy more than they can afford.

There is a name for this:  “buying-shopping disorder.” According to Addiction Center, people so afflicted “use shopping as a coping mechanism to regulate emotions by either getting pleasure or relief after shopping.” Those addicted with BSD also experience “post-purchase guilt and may even shop more to feel better, creating a vicious cycle.”

Video gaming is a growing addiction. Many adults and teens this year will buy or receive PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X. Those pricey consoles are popular because they infuse gamers with stronger doses of gratification, thanks to ultra-high resolution and faster loading times.

Gaming indulges users according to gratification theory. A popular video gaming blog notes that people experience arousal of senses, challenge of skill levels, online competition, release from boredom, stimulation of imagination, and social interaction with other gamers.

That’s why gaming can be so addictive. Here are symptoms cited by the American Psychiatric Association:

  • Preoccupation with gaming.
  • Withdrawal symptoms when gaming is taken away or not possible.
  • Loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities due to gaming.
  • Deceiving family members or others about the amount of time spent on gaming.
  • The need to spend more time gaming to satisfy the urge.

Unlike gratification, gratitude generates ever higher levels of happiness without more time and expense.

Gratitude is associated with the pursuit of happiness as natural right in the Declaration of Independence. Diplomat and statesman James Madison believed gratitude helped define the character of America, advancing liberty and setting an example for the rest of the world.

New York University professor and author Jonathan Haidt says people make three mistakes seeking happiness. It doesn’t mean “getting what you want,” because that lasts only a short time. It doesn’t mean focusing on yourself to get ahead in the world, which leads to self-centeredness. Neither should we equate happiness with few restrictions on our time. That depends on how you spend it.

Haidt believes creating and nurturing bonds with others generates true happiness. “There’s a lot of research in positive psychology showing that gratitude — cultivating gratitude, expressing gratitude — strengthens relationships.”

Holidays are about relationships, especially religious remembrances. Mawlid, one of the first, happened Oct. 28-29, commemorating the birth of the Prophet Muhammad. Giving to charity then is especially important.

Americans in December marvel at multicolored lights on houses and trees. But the Jewish Festival of Lights, Hannukah, observed Dec. 10-18, involves families lighting a special candelabra, the menorah, and thanking God for blessings and deliverance.

Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, not in a villa or stronghold, but in a manger symbolizing humility and purity of character. One of the greatest citations of gratitude is found in Mark 12:31: Love your neighbor as yourself.

Your neighbor no doubt needs some love. They may be experiencing struggles with a global pandemic, faltering economies, derecho damage, partisan politics and personal challenges such as disease, unemployment, homelessness, personal loss and, yes, addiction.

Perhaps we should celebrate this year by giving to charity, acknowledging blessings and practicing humility, loving others as ourselves without regard to color or creed.

That might be a resolution for 2021.

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Michael Bugeja
Michael Bugeja

Michael Bugeja is the author of "Living Media Ethics" (Routledge/Taylor & Francis) and "Interpersonal Divide in the Age of the Machine" (Oxford Univ. Press). He is a regular contributor to Iowa Capital Dispatch and is writing a series of columns on the topic of "Living Ethics." Views expressed here are his own.