Why thankfulness doesn’t come naturally

Like all children, I was taught the two “magic words” (“please” and “thanks”) from a young age. One of them always came more naturally to me than the other, though.

“Please” is used when you’re in a position of wanting or needing something, and you’re blocked because someone else holds the key to it. I discovered it was useful in motivating people to unlock whatever I needed unlocked — especially if employed in a pesky, repetitive fashion — and so I used it early and often.

“Thanks,” on the other hand, didn’t seem to have any intrinsic benefit for the speaker. “In what sense is it ‘magic?’” I always wondered. Whenever it was time to use it, you had already acquired what you wanted anyway. It seemed nothing more than a punctuation mark at the end of a sentence, which might easily be forgotten. Worse, saying thanks might even be interpreted as satisfaction, and thus serve as a blessing terminator. “Thanks, I’m good now, you can go bless someone else.” (In an ugly twist on this theme, I was once told by someone that she never said “thank you,” as a rule, because that would put her in the other person’s debt.)

Anyway, this is one reason I think gratitude is hard. When commanded by our mother, the Bible, or a holiday to “be thankful” it’s hard to be motivated to do it.

But even more onerous than expressing gratitude, I think, is actually feeling it. And this is due to an unfortunate side effect of the linear time space in which we operate.

It goes like this. Ask someone — it doesn’t matter who — whether they’re having a good day. Usually this question will merely trigger a reflex “I’m fine, and you?” response — not an answer at all. But suppose you actually did actually get an honest glimpse inside the mind of the responder. How do they think they’re actually “doing” today?

Their evaluation, I think, will almost always be one relative to their usual baseline. If a person’s typical day involves being respected by their peers, thriving in their career, sitting on a nest egg, developing a sweet romance, etc., then they will not view another day of such things as a “good day,” but rather a “normal day.” After all, feelings wear off, and toys lose their shine through use. If you’re accustomed to good things, good things start to feel normal, and they inevitably get taken for granted. Only an unusual, especially good thing will make you feel like you’re having a good day. And of course if you experience a rebuff, or a pay cut, or a breakup, you’ll soon feel like the day sucks.

Does that seem illogical to you? It does to me. Let’s dig deeper.

Money is easy to quantify, so let’s start there. Suppose you’re making $100k a year, and because of company circumstances, you’re told one day that you have to accept a 10% pay cut. You’re now at $90k. This seems like a “bad” day, and you certainly don’t feel grateful. In contrast, you would have felt quite grateful had you gotten a 10% raise instead.

But why these feelings? Consider: there are lots of other people in the world who were already making $90k, or $110k, before the day started. Heck, there were lots of people making $9k, too, as well as plenty of millionaires. So why does $90k feel like a “bad” day and $110k feel like a “good” day to you? The answer is obvious. You’re basing your happiness on your first derivative, not its absolute magnitude. If the needle moves for you a small bit up or down, this has immense repercussions on how happy you feel.

I remember a story my brother once told me about one of his missionary trips abroad. I think it was to somewhere in rural South America, and he described the children of the village as the happiest kids he’d ever seen — simply grinning ear-to-ear. And why were they so happy? Because their village had recently acquired a soccer ball. That, combined with a field they had nearby, meant hours of fun and play for everybody. The kids were overjoyed.

Try burning to the ground all your physical possessions and replacing them with one soccer ball. If that wouldn’t make you grin ear-to-ear like those children, I’ve made my point.

It’s straightforward to extend this principle beyond money to any other source of happiness. If you’re normally invisible at work, but someone takes notice of you today, it’s a pick-me-up. But if you’re normally Mr. Popular, and no one mentions your work today, you feel slighted. If your annual physical exam turns up nothing, you nod and move on; but if you’ve been fighting cancer, and your exam shows a shrinking tumor, you’re overjoyed. Now which is objectively better: a shrinking tumor, or no tumor at all?

Thus our feelings of happiness — and by extension, our thankfulness — are irrational when viewed objectively. For those who like data, here are three hypothetical people’s recent pasts (30-days’ worth) with their “well-being” plotted each day on some objective, quantitative scale. If, on day 30, you separately asked the blue, orange, and green person whether or not they were having a good day, I think you’d get a “life sucks!” from blue and a “not bad” from green, despite blue having 4x as high a well-being.

Are you having a good day today?

Blue: no! this day has been a nightmare so far!

Orange: meh, can’t complain I guess

Green: yeah, things have been going well!

Now there’s some good news here for the egalitarians among us. This way of evaluating “happiness” is in some ways the great equalizer. It’s poetic justice on a world scale. Whether your average on the well-being scale is a 10 or a 90, your chances of “having a good day” is about even. In fact, you might justifiably view every long-term “blessing” you receive — whether it’s prosperity, a relationship, or social standing — as a curse of sorts. That’s because it pushes up your average, and thus you come to rely on its existence for continued happiness. And every such increase comes with a risk that it will be taken away, leaving you hanging.

Maybe this has something to do with Paul’s words in Philippians 4:11-13. He writes, “I have learned the secret of being content, in any and every situation.” This, perhaps, is his secret: don’t let the daily wiggles of your line determine your happiness. That’s just chasing the wind.

Paul says in another place: “be thankful in all circumstances.” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18). For those of us in the privileged crowd, we now have a way to accomplish that. The key is simply to take your eye off your line’s wiggles, and focus instead on the happy fact that your average is so high. You really are blessed, even if the how-does-today-compare-to-yesterday algorithm might sometimes give you a false negative.

Of course, not everyone is so privileged. There are innumerable people today living in war-torn regions, lacking basic sustenance, facing extreme persecution, migrating far from home, or experiencing other things that put their “average day” on this 0-to-100 scale genuinely in the teens or worse. For them, the solution to “how do I remain thankful?” must be different, since they can’t take simply zoom out and take comfort in seeing a line that is generally high.

The only strategy for someone in those circumstances to be genuinely thankful, I believe, is to zoom out even farther. Because ultimately, even the entire line on the graph is finite and bound. The New Testament constantly exhorts us to take this larger perspective. “Do not build up for yourselves treasures on earth,” Jesus says, “but treasures in heaven.” (Matthew 6:19) “Set your minds on things above,” says Paul, “not on earthly things.” (Colossians 3:1-3) Peter assures us that our spiritual inheritance “can never perish, spoil, or fade,” (1 Peter 1:4-6) even though “now for a little while we may have to suffer grief and trials.” The emphasis is always on what transcends the laws and realities of this present age.

My prayer for you (and me) this Thanksgiving is that we will be able to see our lives in the larger context of God’s ultimate plan for us. No matter what kind of year you’ve been having, that larger story arc is one the thing that deserves our unqualified thankfulness. Nothing that we suffer along the way is even “worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us,” says Paul. (Romans 8:18)

Those who are less privileged in this world will get there ahead of those of us who are distracted by so many worldly riches and successes. And that seems right to me. They deserve to go in the front of the line. Thanks to all who suffer nobly and non-violently in this world, and who serve as such a vivid example of strength and grace under pressure. May the overblessed among us marvel at you as we try to imitate your example. Hopefully we can begin to please our God someday as richly as you so obviously do every single difficult hour.

— S

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *