I am among the luckiest people on the planet, and among the luckiest in the history of the world.
Some of my blessings are individual: I was born into a large, loving family of smart, generous people, and managed to enlarge that family with a wife and children who are a constant source of support and joy. I work doing things I find interesting and fulfilling, and my wife and I earn enough that we don’t live in fear of going hungry. Those things alone would put me among the most comfortable 10 per cent of people who’ve ever lived.
But there’s so much more: I live in Toronto, in Canada, in 2013. It is a city that has not seen war for two centuries, and where violence is rarer than it is in most other places—even at a time when violence and war are dramatically less common than they ever have been. Every home has indoor plumbing, heat, and electricity. Food is relatively cheap and plentiful. Top-notch healthcare is available to everyone, regardless of their ability to pay the bills. This is a society in which formal, legalized racial and sexual discrimination have been abolished, in which you are free to love and form a family with whomever you want. Open bigotry and systemic discrimination still exist, but they are increasingly marginal, and often draw immediate widespread ire when they’re exposed.
This is to say nothing of the ubiquitous pocket-sized devices that allow us instant access to the collected knowledge of our civilization, more or less, and enable us to communicate easily with people all over the globe. Smartphones alone are advanced enough to be, as Arthur Clarke observed of technology, indistinguishable from magic. Today, magic is commonplace.
The arc of history is long, as Martin Luther King famously said, but it bends toward justice. And if we take a moment to look at our lives, most of us will see ample evidence that he was right. I expect this all sounds a bit smarmy and pollyanna-ish, but, hey, it’s Thanksgiving. So it’s a risk I’m willing to take. Especially because our collective tendency—myself included—is to err in the other direction. In our instant-communications environment, we can be constantly vigilant about ongoing problems, immediately aware of each murder, each war atrocity, each example of malicious sexism or racism or homophobia. From global warming to the persistence of poverty in a place as affluent as Toronto to our daily struggles to navigate our gridlocked roads and crowded transit system, we often focus on the difficulties. And our politicians play up these problems to encourage a perception of catastrophe. In Toronto, we have a mayor who campaigned on the premise that the city was going to hell on a gravy train; his opponents are equally certain that his election signals the end of the world. Almost all of us, it seems, can sometimes feel that the apocalypse is at hand. Which is only natural: Recognizing ongoing threats and striving to become ever safer is a defining characteristic of humanity. It’s how we got this far.
But social-science research has revealed something else about how humans function: that taking time to think about the things we are grateful for is one of the most effective ways to become happier. Moreover, that happiness and gratitude, we’re coming to realize, are qualities that often lead to success.
I think there’s something to be learned from that, both in our daily lives and in the big picture. The relative comfort and peace we enjoy shouldn’t make us complacent. Instead, if we occasionally acknowledge how much progress we’ve made, it might inspire us to progress further and recognize just how much positive change is possible. Perhaps then we might see how the successes of the past allow us—and obligate us—to work to try to finish the job. That might mean more affordable housing, widespread transit, a more sustainable energy policy, a more equitable economic system. More justice, less suffering.
So here’s a small, personal prayer of Thanksgiving: There is no better place in the world to live than here. There has been no better time to live in than this one. My daily life is full of small and large pleasures that my grandparents would have considered miraculous. I am lucky. And grateful. And inspired to share my good fortune. Thanks.