Say Yes, in Spite of Everything

Author: John Groden


Every semester, we run into a problem with gratitude.

Most students have already heard about the benefits of gratitude: decreased rates of stress and depression, improved relationships, and general increases in well-being.1 Sometimes they have even experimented with gratitude journaling. But the concept can ring hollow to them in the face of their actual problems: constant busyness, comparison bias, and the relentless pressure to succeed. In short, the students object to toxic positivity.

Toxic positivity, unfortunately, permeates much of our cultural dialogue today. Whenever someone says to just “look on the bright side,” or “everything happens for a reason,” they spread this misconception of gratitude. Toxic positivity refuses to engage with reality and negative emotions like anxiety or anger. It insists on “good vibes only” at the expense of honesty.

Gratitude, rightly understood, embraces reality. Gratitude notes and accepts negative emotions, but nevertheless gives thanks and celebrates joy. Anxiety, lament, and grief are all part of being human, but they are not the whole story. A good life welcomes both sadness and joy. As the author of Ecclesiastes puts it, there is a time and a season for everything: “a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance.”

Viktor Frankl endured immense suffering in the Holocaust. A year after his liberation from a concentration camp, he published the seminal Man’s Search for Meaning. In one of his lectures about the book, he summarized his grateful worldview in one sentence: “Say yes to life, in spite of everything.”2

So when our students point out that just focusing on the bright side is incomplete, we agree with them. We explore fear and failure in a later class. But the presence of darkness should not permanently distract us from the possibilities of dawn. Every day poses opportunities to savor joy, laughter, and love. Thomas Merton implores us to “forget ourselves on purpose, cast our awful solemnity to the winds and join in the general dance.”3 Authentic gratitude embraces pain, but chooses to celebrate anyways.

Say yes to life, in spite of everything.


“Through all the tumult and the strife

I hear its music ringing,

It sounds an echo in my soul.

How can I keep from singing?”

[1] Tannenbaum, Melanie, “The Health, Happiness, and Heart Helps of Expressing Gratitude,” Scientific American, 25 Nov.

[2] The lecture was later collected into a book of the same name.

[3] Merton, Thomas, New Seeds of Contemplation (New Directions, 2007), 297.