“Feeling gratitude and not expressing it is like wrapping a present and not giving it.” –William Arthur Ward

When I sat down to write this article, I was nervous.

I was supposed to be writing about the importance of gratitude during the COVID-19 pandemic. But, I couldn’t ignore the facts. Canada’s unemployment rate is the highest it’s been in nearly 40 years. Thirty-five per cent of post-secondary students had an internship cancelled or delayed. Graduates were robbed of opportunities and their long-awaited walk across the stage. How could I suggest people simply “be grateful?”

Turns out, I was looking at gratitude all wrong.

"Nope" written in white on a brown wood wall.

What does that mean?

Most Western cultures—Canada’s included—are defined by the principles of individualism:

  • An emphasis on standing out and being unique,
  • The prioritization of individual rights,
  • Utmost value placed on independence,
  • A shameful stigma attached to needing help.

We see these principles everywhere—from popular music to our obsession with being “#selfmade.” These values don’t necessarily mean our culture is egocentric—just that we’re more likely to value independence over fraternity.

But, outside the North American bubble, collectivism is a more popular ideology. The main principles of collectivism are:

  • An emphasis on co-operation and the common good,
  • The prioritization of common goals over individual desires,
  • Utmost value placed on family and community.

Gratitude looks different in an individualist society than in a collectivist society, due to their differing values. While a member of an individualist society might define gratitude as, “being thankful for what you have,” a member of a collectivist society is more likely to define it as, “returning kindness to your peers.”

Because I grew up in Canada’s individualist culture, my first instinct was to view gratitude as making a Pinterest board of all the things you’re grateful for. And, while that can be a great way to de-stress, it’s tone-deaf advice to give to a wounded society.

That’s where I went wrong. See, gratitude can help us get through this global pandemic—but not in the way you might think. In order for it to work, it must be expressed outward.

Put simply, we need to show other people we’re grateful for them.

A young couple watches a movie in bed.

Why do you say that?

Individualism is not inherently bad. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has given light to some of its major faults:

  • Tendency to focus on individual needs can lead to a disregard for community well-being. Slowing the spread of COVID-19 means taking whatever measures possible to protect each other—yet, still, some groups refuse to wear face masks (even though they’re mandatory) because they want individual “freedom of choice.”
  • Stigma attached to needing help negatively affects those who lost jobs and opportunities due to the pandemic. Individualism argues requiring outside assistance is shameful, which leads to some people labelling the millions of Canadians collecting the CERB as “lazy” or “moochers.”
  • Extreme value placed on independence means, in theory, social distancing should be no problem. Individualism says we don’t need other people to get by—but many are choosing to ignore public health guidelines to get together with large groups of friends.

These faults create tension—tension between families, tension between friend groups, and tension in romantic relationships.

How many times have you argued with a loved one this year because you disagreed about the best way to stay safe?

A woman argues over video call.

What does that have to do with gratitude?

It all comes down to community care. Think self-care, but on a larger scale. Prioritizing collectivist values and community care means we’re all invested in a global network where we work for each other—not for ourselves, adjacent to each other.

Gratitude is part of that.

Expressing our gratitude for one another, to one another, can strengthen community by reminding us that everything we do impacts those around us. If someone goes out of their way to help you out, say, “Thank you,” by doing something nice for them in return.

Kindness inspires kindness.

A woman accepts a bouquet of flowers.

Furthermore, many people working on the front lines of this pandemic are in largely thankless positions. Showing gratitude to a stranger is free—and it can help remind them how essential they are.

The next time you get groceries, thank your cashier for all their hard work. The next time your mail is delivered, thank your postal worker. When your garbage is picked up, thank your sanitation worker.

It’s a small but mighty act of community care.

A small plant grows among rocks.

Practicing gratitude can look like meditating and bullet journalling a list of your blessings. It’s important to find ways to take care of yourself—now and always.

But, overcoming a pandemic is a worldwide group project. We can’t approach it only by focusing on what we’re grateful for individually. We must also practice collective gratitude: continuous, unconditional support for one another.

Collectivist gratitude creates connection. And, we could all use a little connection right now.

A woman smiles on video call.

If you’re feeling disconnected and need some support, make an appointment with the Student Wellness and Accessibility Centre (SWAC). They offer free, confidential, remote counselling to all Humber and UofGH students.

Because, no matter where you are, you’re part of the Humber community.

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