“Where else would you rather be than right here, right now?” That quote is attributed to former Buffalo Bills coach Marv Levy, but it applies to every American living in 2022. Compared with almost every other time and place in history, we have won the lottery. Yet our dissatisfaction as a whole is palpable.
Let’s start with politics, where—on the right, at least—the sense of doom and gloom has become something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. “Populist movements almost by definition don’t spring up among people who think everything is going great and they’re getting a fair shake,” writes Jonah Goldberg in his 2018 book Suicide of the West. “Populism is fueled by resentment, the sense that the ‘real people’ are being kept down or exploited by the elites or the establishment or, in the numerous extreme cases of populism, shadowy conspirators.”
Sound familiar? A lot of blame belongs to people in the grievance business (politicians and media folks who profit off of stoking anger and bitterness). I’ll use a recent example: The big complaint on Fox News this Thanksgiving week is that the high cost of turkey will force some families to eat (don’t make me say it!) chicken.
To the extent this is a pervasive problem, it just means we are out of actual problems to bitch about. Just imagine having to explain to a poverty-stricken Appalachian in 1822 that things are horrible because his feast this year will feature the wrong bird.
To be sure, both sides have their own version of this hand-wringing (flip over to another TV or radio channel if you want to hear how Thanksgiving gatherings are going to cause a “tripledemic”).
Media has always had a negativity bias and an “if it bleeds it leads” mentality. But prior to Donald Trump’s arrival on the political scene, conservatives, at least, were philosophically preconditioned toward a spirit of thanksgiving.
Here’s how conservative writer Yuval Levin explained it in 2015: “Conservatives often begin from gratitude because we start from modest expectations of human affairs—we know that people are imperfect, and fallen, and weak…and we’re enormously impressed by the institutions that have managed to make something great of this imperfect raw material.”
Trump changed all of that. After all, it’s hard to be thankful when the institutions are rigged and elections are being stolen. It’s hard to be grateful and a victim.
Now, it’s fair to say that shady things are happening (insider trading in Congress, for example) that erode our trust in political institutions and elites. America has never been perfect, and the need for reforms will always exist. But the things modern America has gotten right far outweigh our perceived problems—if only we’d acknowledge that.
To appreciate our blessings, we must first put things in their proper context. In modern America, you can have air conditioning, cable TV, and life-saving medicine—and still be considered poor. This is not meant to diminish real problems that people face, but our poverty is relative poverty.
Most of the people complaining that we’ve never lived in a more miserable time have a freezer full of food. They have an iPhone. They drive a car with airbags and seat belts.
Of course, purpose and meaning are not derived from materialistic abundance or the proliferation of cheap consumer goods. Most of the people complaining about our country can walk and talk and see and hear. They have family members who love them. They can also vote. They can criticize the president—without fear of a knock on the door. They can worship in whatever church, mosque, synagogue, or house of worship they choose. They can walk down the street without being attacked.
And yet, for some reason, they are convinced America is going to hell in a handbasket. I don’t get it.
If you’re a liberal, you should also take what I’m saying to heart. It’s noble to push for more progress and rights, but don’t fail to acknowledge how far we have come. Let’s not act like there has been no progress on racial or gender issues—or that there’s nothing redeemable. Be thankful that our imperfect union is this close to perfect.
This is important collectively and individually; while being grateful might help fix our politics, it also has amazing and observable health benefits.
Scientific research has demonstrated that gratitude makes us happier, reduces symptoms of depression, increases resilience, improves self-esteem, improves sleep, lowers blood pressure, lowers stress, and strengthens our immune systems.
We can all be happier by keeping a gratitude journal or by counting our blessings. “Something as simple as writing down three things you’re grateful for every day for 21 days in a row significantly increases your level of optimism, and it holds for the next six months,” Harvard researcher and author Shawn Archer told Inc.com.
No, we shouldn’t live in a fool’s paradise where we ignore real problems that need to be addressed, either at the individual or global level. At the same time, we shouldn’t unrealistically assume that things are worse than they really are.
When we do, we not only make ourselves unhappy and sick, we make irrational decisions that threaten the health of this great democracy.
If dissatisfaction is our illness, gratitude is the cure. Thank God for what we have.