A Messy Relationship with Gratitude and Greed

Be glad. Be good. Be brave. Eleanor Hodgman Porter

I’m a glass half-full, see the silver lining through my rose-coloured glasses kind of person. At a summer job as a teenager, my co-workers made me a name tag saying “Painfully Perky”. I fill the “Good Things that Happened” box in my weekly planner to the brim. I’ve lived through trauma and abuse, and – with helpful therapists and friends – find peace and even humour in upsetting events from my past and new frustrations as they happen. As my daughter told me, “You always like doing things,” and we talk about how privileged we are. On the VIA Personality Survey (viacharacter.org) my top three traits are humour, curiosity, and gratitude. My heart and my journal are full of appreciation and hope.

List of strengths: Humour, Curiosity, and Gratitude
from viacharacter.org, my top 3 strengths out of 24


I’m greedy. As in, I get more than my money’s worth at buffets, and when I’m honest with myself, I often want more. Not more things – wannabe minimalist here – but more time, more freedom, more money to have time and freedom. And nicer things, a house in better repair, by the ocean, while still being here in the eden that is Wortley Village. My dark impulses, the lurking ones I barely open my eyes to, are often about taking something that isn’t mine (like extra vacation time), so that I can have more. On the VIA, my lowest trait is Self-Regulation, my ability to control my appetites. (Prudence is right down there at the bottom of my list too, that might be a topic of another post or twenty … no dull life here 😊)

I didn’t notice this as a contradiction until reading something along the lines of ‘a person can’t be both greedy and genuinely grateful’. I’m paraphrasing, and the author went on to say that (their) god knows what’s in your heart so you’d better smarten up and stop being greedy. I’m less worried about a snooping god than I am curious that I’m greedy at all when I feel full of contentment. While I notice and temper greedy impulses and rarely act on them, I can’t deny they’re there.

So, I researched Greed. I wanted to understand if I was using the word differently, and wondered if I was in denial. Maybe I’m not as happy as I think I am if I’m craving more.

I googled and PubMed-ed and found overwhelming consensus among random internet advisers and pedigreed academics alike: Gratitude and greed are opposites, incongruous with each other, one the antidote to the other. Yikes.

Am I even who I think I am? Is it all just an act, that’s fooled even me, for decades?


Researchers (Terri G. Seuntjens et al., Defining GreedBritish Journal of Psychology (2015), 106, 505–525define greed as never being satisfied with what one currently has, “an insatiable hunger for more.” Well, that fits for me, at least in a buffet line or scheduling time off work. But most of the academic papers also focus on materialism, always wanting more things, collecting, shopping, amassing – my polar opposite.

What about buddhism? That’s my usual go-to for recognizing truth, for remembering what I knew all along. I find deep comfort in connecting to my inner buddha and to all others. In an essay about gratitude, Barbara O’Brien gives helpful suggestions for cultivating gratitude (most of which are part of my daily practice) and says, “greed and gratitude cannot peacefully coexist.”

So. Confused.

I used Seuntjen et al.’s scale (Dispositional GreedJournal of Personality and Social Psychology 2015, Vol. 108, No. 6, 917–933) to measure just how greedy I am, and because what an intriguing title! I want to know what non-dispositional greed is, and they write about things like greed-induced behaviours, which sound fun. Anyway, thank goodness: It turns out I’m a bit below average, less dispositionally greedy than the American and Dutch people studied. (I’m Canadian, I think a high score on the scale might invalidate my passport.)

Summary? Brilliant insight into what’s happening in my head and my heart?

Life is messy.

I am human, an essence of contradictions and confusions. My gratitude and my greed are intertwined parts of me, both wonderful and painful at times. I am greedy for more freedom, and I find freedom in having fewer things, so I’m pretty sure I’m greedy to have less greed. Or that wanting more things is a different kind of greed than wanting more time. I can want more and still appreciate all the time and freedoms I do have, which are plentiful. I can love my life the way it is in this moment, and I can want it to be different in the future. I have no insight into my eating habits at buffets, so I’ll just keep avoiding them.

This is reminding me of Tara Brach’s Radical Acceptance. What I should have done at the start was search for a meditation on gratitude by her – her words always bring such warm clarity to my thinking. I’ll go see what I can find, sit with it, and report back when I have time 🙂

list of wonderful people and things
my gratitude list, chocolate stains and all

6 thoughts on “A Messy Relationship with Gratitude and Greed

  1. I think we can carry these contradictions and paradoxes within us – one side of us is grateful, while another wants more (this post resonates with me so much, Karen). Is it OK just to acknowledge the side that wants more, rather than give ourselves a hard time for it? I wonder if, in exploring the desire for more, we can understand ourselves better. As usual, you’ve given me a lot to think about (and I’m grateful for that!).

    1. Thanks Julie, I’m always so happy to hear from you! And I think you’ve hit on something, with simply seeing, noticing, the greed with curiosity not judgement. 😊

  2. Truly we are all walking contradictions as humans. This is a thoughtful piece and I can truly relate to it. I hope you don’t mind if I re-post this in my Saturday share. 🙂

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