No matter how urbanized, technologized, and commodified we’ve become, we still feel in our ancient, primordial bones the gratitude of the harvest season. We come from farmers. We are hard-wired to the celestial cycle. Autumn comes and the wandering days of summer give way to hearth and home. We start nesting. We take stock and store up for winter. We plainly see how flush our lives are with abundance. We grow thankful.
We may not have everything we want. But we know we have everything we need.
Half of the world’s population, 3.6 billion people, lives on less than $2.00 a day. That’s an annual income of $712. From that meager amount they have to pay for housing, food, clothing, water, health care, education, and fuel. 20% of the world lives on less than $1.00 a day. 40% of the people on earth do not have indoor plumbing. In developing countries, 90% of sewage is untreated and discharged directly into lakes, rivers, and streams. 95% of the people on earth do not own a car. If you own a car, you are in the world’s wealthiest 5%. The United States makes up only 5% of the world’s population, but we own 35% of the world’s cars. 5% of the people on earth own a computer. 20% own a smart phone.
If you own a car, have indoor plumbing, have a computer in your home, and have a smart phone, you are obscenely wealthy by global standards.
Yet no matter how much empirical evidence you amass, that nagging feeling never seems to leave us – we don’t have enough.
It seems we need more and more just to stay in the same place.
Psychologists and marketing analysts have a name for this. It’s called the hedonic treadmill. As on a treadmill, where one must remain in motion to stay in the same place, our appetites and cravings keep reaching for the next thing despite the obvious abundance of our lives. Even lottery winners, after the shock, thrill, and flush wears off, return to their previous happiness set point. This is also known as hedonic adaptation – we simply and unconsciously adjust to the new material reality. But inside, nothing’s changed.
In other words, happiness cannot come from rearranging the outer conditions of our lives. Happiness is an inside job.
This is why it’s essential to shift our thinking about gratitude. In our normal way of thinking, gratitude comes after a need or a desire is fulfilled – it is an endpoint arising only when just the right outer conditions come into existence. What if instead we began thinking of gratitude as a starting point, a decision we make here and now, regardless of external conditions. In one sense it isn’t hard to do for most of us. Look around. By world standards we have everything we need. All that’s left is to change our thinking.
“Gratitude,” Cicero wrote, “is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others.” Courage, compassion, serenity, wisdom – all of these human excellences begin to develop only after we come out of the self-centered consciousness of scarcity and recognize our abundance. And when we recognize our abundance, we recognize our interconnectedness and the extent to which we co-create each other. None of us does any of this alone. We all carry each other. And we are supported by an infinite, conscious universe. When we start with the warm glow of humility and thankfulness, we experience an inner alignment and availability to our other higher functions. Gratitude opens the door to greatness.
How many times have we convinced ourselves that when we get that new car, that new guitar, that new job, that new lover we will finally be satisfied and happy? How many times have we fallen under the same old spell? You’d think we would have learned by now.
And pouring gasoline on the fire is the relentless marketing machinery of our capitalistic economic system, which requires ceaseless and ever-expanding consumption. If a business’ income stays the same year after year, it is by the curious standards of capitalism failing. The job of corporate advertising is to create ever-new “solutions” to the problem of human dissatisfaction. This car, that vacation, another pair of jeans. This furniture, that beer, another diamond pendant. Whatever we have, advertising says, isn’t enough. You need this thing too. And this thing. And another. And the coup de grace is to surreptitiously align their product with our nameless emotion longing. They craft beautifully produced mini films called commercials to peel back our rational defensiveness and cut right to the heart. Owning this kind of car proves your fatherly wisdom. Buying this kind of mayonnaise proves your worthiness as a mother. We already mistakenly believe that our happiness comes from external objects. And we bear so many wounds, labor beneath so much self-doubt, and harbor so many insecurities. Show us a pathway out of our pain. We aren’t that hard to sell to.
The favorite word of mercantilism is “new.” Like Pavlov’s bell, it sets off immediate salivation in the maw of the American consumer.
But the fact remains, we need each other, and we need each other’s goods and services. Our interrelationship is an economic one to be sure. In the struggle to survive, we’re all selling something – our ability, our talent, our service, our product. We are not debating the worthiness of one economic system over another. We are on a deeper hunt. We are looking for our freedom from delusion. There must be a way to honor our creativity, our profession, our work product, and still help each other awaken from the nightmare of, as some have dubbed it, affluenza – the disease of more, more, more.
It begins with choosing new thoughts. Start with the empirical evidence. Have an old, undesirable car? You’re in the wealthiest 5% on earth. Have a plumbing problem? Four out of ten people on earth don’t even have plumbing. They get their water from a creek – a creek that also serves as the village sewer. Struggling with a glitchy, old computer? 95% of the people on earth don’t own a computer. Then, after you take a cold hard look at the facts, begin to shift from the consciousness of scarcity to the consciousness of gratitude. This transformation isn’t a one-time thing. It takes time to replace old habits with new ones. Begin a gratitude journal. Gratitude is a verb, not a noun. Chronicle your emerging gratitude day by day. After a year you’ll be a different person. Change your thoughts, change your life.
It is not an impoverished austerity we’re after. Asceticism is just another form of self-indulgence. The final goal is generosity, abundance of spirit, and the real and unapologetic enjoyment of life. We can enjoy our things and be at play in the field of forms without pathological attachment to any of them. We can create solutions, manufacture tools, master skills, and serve the needs of others without buying into the lie that happiness is measured by the pound. We can choose quality over quantity. We can do more with less. And we can fall in love with our lives just the way they are. It begins with practicing gratitude.
Peter Bolland is a writer, speaker, and singer-songwriter as well as the chair of the humanities department and professor of philosophy at Southwestern College where he teaches comparative religion, Asian philosophy, ethics, and world mythology. Everything you need to know is at www.peterbolland.com