When a family member learned not long ago that he was dying of cancer, he visited a church he hadn’t much seen and, while leaving, he picked up a tract on the topic of facing death. The very first suggestion was to give thanks. Initially, it seemed perverse to him; after all, he was counting his impending losses, not his blessings.
But, he followed the advice and it literally transformed him, and, among other things, gave him new courage and hope.
Gratitude has been called the gateway to the virtues. As Cicero put it, “Gratitude is not only the greatest of the virtues, but the parent of all others,” opening the heart to deeper appreciation, compassion, repentance, forgiveness, generosity and wisdom. Giving thanks should be cultivated as a habit. It is a kind of therapy for the spirit.
It also can lift the spirit of a nation. When one is grateful, it is hard to feel angry, resentful or bitter. Some medical scientists think gratitude is healing, that the emotion of thankfulness releases endorphins that produce a feeling of well-being. In contrast, fear and hostility pump adrenaline into one’s veins and raise blood pressure.
Gratitude focuses on the goodness of right now, and makes it less likely that we will become anxious about possible dangers tomorrow. Appreciating what one has inspires satisfaction and relieves the perpetually gnawing appetite for new material possessions and sensations.
An attitude of gratitude builds on itself. Express gratitude and you feel more grateful. If you notice some small matter worth being thankful for, you increase the chance of noticing another one soon.
It is a matter of choice whether you incorporate that disposition into your personality. As the psychologist Victor Frankel wrote, “We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.”
Americans report themselves as generally happy individuals, happier than people in Western Europe, for example, even if they are not as happy as, say, Mexicans. But working against happiness, and against the precondition of gratitude, are the overly high expectations many of us have.
It is our American sense that we somehow are entitled to a constantly better life. Nothing kills gratitude faster than unmet expectations. Expect the job and don’t get it: rancid disappointment. Don’t expect the job and get it: gratitude and joy.
Advertising, of course, contributes to our discontent. The resulting runaway consumerism produces what Gregg Easterbrook in “The Progress Paradox” calls “abundance denial.” Many of us tend not only to be ungrateful for our enormous relative prosperity, but also feel obliged to deny it, even to ourselves, maybe especially to ourselves. This used to be called “poor-mouthing,” and it had the bad connotation that one was seeking unearned pity.
Then again, some of us seem to think that there is some kind of nobility, or at least practical good sense, in discontent. Only if we are perpetually dissatisfied, they seem to feel, can we be spurred to make progress as individuals or a society. So they learn how to become really expert complainers. Letters to the editor columns are full of well-crafted, often withering, indictments of the assumed motives and failings of others. America, of course, has the most lawyers in the world, and the best.
But, our carefully nurtured dissatisfaction detracts from personal gratitude and then easily infects public life. For years, surveys have shown that a majority of Americans think worse of their country than facts warrant.
A majority, 52 percent, say that their parents’ generation had it better than they do, and a larger majority, 60 percent, say that their children can expect even less. One survey shows that 66 percent of people think the lot of the average person is getting worse.
Statistics, fortunately, don’t support such naive pessimism.
Homeownership, long considered the particular content of the “American Dream,” is now nearly 70 percent, the highest in history. That figure was only 20 percent a century ago.
Personal income keeps growing, even though the statistics are skewed downward by a historically high influx of immigrants, most of whom, of course, arrive poor. Meanwhile, though surveys show that people think inflation is terrible, real costs of products are down. Travel is much cheaper than it was even a few years ago. Many of us remember the term “jet set”; it referred to economic elites who could afford to fly wherever they wanted. Today, there are 200 million passengers flying, nearly 70 percent of the population.
We wring our hands over food safety. But there has never been such cheap, healthful and abundant food — some of it deliciously exotic and out of season — and we take it all for granted. Eating out used to be a relatively rare luxury, now it is commonplace. The farmland needed to produce America’s lavish cornucopia is shrinking and, partly as a result, America has more trees, woods and forests than we have had for more than a hundred years.
We are hectored about the supposed curse of globalization, but a Brookings Institution study notes that the average income of people in the developing world has risen from $2,125 in 1975 to $4,000 today. The number of people considered middle class (or adequately situated economically) by U.N. standards has grown from 1.3 billion to 3.5 billion. The developing nations’ share of world population has grown in that same period, but income has grown much faster.
There may be a long-running fictional crime wave on television, often featuring murderous businessmen, but real crime, featuring pathetic and bungling crooks, has been decreasing for a generation now. Crime rates are nearly where they were in the mid-1960s, 40 years ago.
There is a decline in the number of abortions. The divorce rate has leveled off and may even be declining. Alcoholism overall is down. Smoking is down — only approximately 10 percent of high-school students now smoke.
And, if you want to look at foreign affairs, despite the preoccupation with the Iraq war, the total numbers of wars and conflicts (and related deaths) in the world have declined and democracy is more widespread than ever before. But, that is not the perception.
To despair in these times is not warranted or wise. Easterbrook even suggests that it is treacherous, expressing unspoken contempt for the sacrifices of all the generations before us who have made our progress possible.
None of this is to minimize the real and serious problems we face as individuals and as a civilization. It is to say that we stand a better chance of solving those problems, and realizing our opportunities, if we are realistic. Surely, we can start by giving thanks for what we have, and for all those with whom we share the great adventure of life.