Here in the United States, this Thursday is Thanksgiving. Like most Americans, each November, my family and I celebrate the longstanding traditions of our ancestors: waiting for hours in airport security lines, listening to drunken uncles’ political rants, and trampling children at Walmart to save $5 on an Xbox game.
Oh, and giving thanks.
But in spite of having a national holiday dedicated to gratitude – not to mention the variety of benefits that come along with it – not very many of us take much time to think about the topic. Forbes mentions that three in five Americans say they would rather watch football or play with the family cat than reflect for a minute on what they’re thankful for.
And, frankly, who could be thankful in a world like ours?
Turn on cable news for five minutes, and it’s all horror. Terrorists are attacking major world cities, slaughtering the innocent. Millions of refugees are fleeing their homes with nothing but the clothes on their back. Major world economies are teetering on the edge of collapse. Police are profiling and killing minorities in the streets with no punishment. And have you even seen this year’s lineup of presidential candidates?
Even the supposed story behind the holiday – pilgrims and American Indians sharing a meal – is steeped in a shameful history of violence, racism, and rampant colonialism. These days, most of us can’t even relate to the idea of celebrating a harvest at all. The food I eat is grown year-round all over the world. Three taps on my smartphone and another human being will bring me a plate of fresh sushi with one fish from each ocean. Celebrating corn-picking time? Yawn.
It’s tough to avoid getting caught up in all this negativity. I’d love to say it’s all nonsense (“just be happy!”), but there are horrible, unfair, unjust things happening everywhere in the world every day. Depressed people may even have a more realistic view of the world.
“The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are slowly being devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst, and disease…. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.”
– Evolutionary biologist and total buzzkill Richard Dawkins
How could anyone be thankful with a worldview like that? Let’s start big-picture:
I’m thankful to be alive. I’m thankful that I exist at all. This is a philosophically complicated one that I’m not nearly smart enough to discuss in a scientific manner, but the odds that billions of years of chance occurrences would result in me and you are pretty low. (Okay, not if you subscribe to multiverse theory, but stick with me here.) Some have argued the counterpoint here – that it would be superior to never have existed – but I’m an adventurous, risk-loving person, and if nothing else, you must admit that living is infinitely more fascinating than not living.
I’m thankful to live in – by nearly all measures – the best time to ever be alive.
We live in an era of unprecedented wealth. Certainly, income inequality is a growing issue – but the average person in the western world today lives with day-to-day luxuries of which even the wealthiest royalty a few hundred years ago could never dream: Access to revolutionary, life-saving vaccines and medicines. Heat and indoor plumbing. Fresh, exotic food from across the globe. Unparalleled and immediate access to art, music, literature, and a wealth of human knowledge.
We live in the most peaceful time in our species’ existence. It’s hard to imagine in the age of ISIS, but we’re as close to world peace as we’ve ever been in history. The world has seen massive declines in war-related deaths since the end of World War II. Since the end of the Cold War, the world has experienced fewer civil wars, fewer genocides (a 90% reduction), and even a reversal of the 1960s-era uptick in homicide and violent crime. In the US, homicide rates are at their lowest levels in 100 years.
We live longer, and with better health, than ever before. Thanks to improvements in medicine, nutrition, education, and access to healthcare, global average life expectancy has more than doubled since 1900. From 1915 to 1997, infant mortality in the US declined more than 90%, and maternal mortality declined almost 99%.
We live with numerous personal freedoms that were never afforded to generations past. Tune into any political conversation, and you’re sure to hear about all the ways that the opposite is true: high taxes, onerous regulations, gun control, health insurance mandates, and a hundred other examples. But on the other hand, historically marginalized groups have made meaningful progress over the past few generations. There’s plenty more to be done, but I’m thankful for the continued movements in Civil Rights, feminism, and LGBT rights. And there are plenty of other “new” freedoms we enjoy today – whether it’s reductions in military conscription, easier international travel, or judgment-free access to “sin” (gambling, pornography, alcohol, marijuana, etc.).
I’m thankful to be one of the most privileged people in the world today.
Let’s start with the non-monetary considerations. By virtue of the fact that you’re reading this, you likely possess:
- Access to the internet, a major factor for prosperity
- A working knowledge of English, one of the world’s most widely spoken languages and the lingua franca of business and academia
- A roof over your head with electricity, heat, and running water
- A formal education in language, literature, mathematics, and science
- The ability to practice your religion of choice, or no religion
- Technology you don’t appreciate, you non-contributing zero
- Access to fresh, healthful food
- Access to high-quality healthcare
- The freedom to move about the world with one of the most powerful passports
Holy shit, what a list! Then, of course, there’s the money side of things. Go plug your income or net worth into Global Rich List to see where you rank in the world. I don’t mean to spoil the surprise, but you are RICH:
An annual income of just $3,000 puts you in the top third globally. $32,500 or more puts you in the top percentile. How does it feel to be “the 1%”? And if you crack six figures, it’s even crazier – you’re in the top 0.08% richest people in the world by income.
And while we’re on the topic, we should also recognize the ridiculous social privilege we enjoy: race, class, ability, education, gender, gender identity… the list goes on. I would be neglectful to not acknowledge what a major role these factors play in our lives and our financial and travel goals. Mrs. Frugalwoods has written an excellent post on this topic.
Whatever may be going on in the world, there are clearly plenty of reasons to be deeply thankful. If you’re fortunate enough to have some of the descriptions above apply to you, I hope you feel the same way.