By now, it’s an egregious cliché of clichés to think about things we’re thankful for on Thanksgiving. While the 1 pm “dinner” is the main event, many families, including my own, incorporate some kind of tradition where everyone goes around the table and says what they’re thankful for. Most of the time this is a pretty mundane tradition and borders on a superficial formality before the food free-for-all can begin.
But at a time when Americans are deeply divided along just about every line imaginable, this tradition, however mundane, offers a real chance to step back from the day-to-day crises that typically soak up all of our attention and express real gratitude. After all, most of us have avoided a flaming hot Cheetos turkey! But seriously, good news is all around us if we just care to look. Even Thanksgiving dinner itself is one such example. According to the American Farm Bureau Federation, the cost of Thanksgiving dinner is 26 percent lower than it was in 1986.
And it’s not just holiday meals that have decreased in price, it’s a whole host of consumer goods. Everything from TVs to clothing to new cars to cell phone service has dropped in price over the past couple of decades—making such items accessible to an ever larger number of people. Basically, anything that is not “supported” by government intervention and subsidization (like college tuition and healthcare) has seen its price decline over time, sometimes substantially so. While dropping prices are certainly something to celebrate, as is the expanded access to goods that were once only affordable for the wealthy, there is something more fundamental to be thankful for; something that is easy to overlook by just focusing on the measurable effects that we can easily observe (like a decline in prices).
You wouldn’t guess it by watching cable news, but we live in an unparalleled time of human cooperation. Violence has declined dramatically over the years and as more and more people have been brought into the cooperative fold, rates of extreme poverty have dropped faster than Michael Avenatti’s chances of becoming President. According to the World Bank, the share of the world’s population living in extreme poverty fell from 36 percent in 1990 to 15 percent in 2011. Miracles like that don’t happen by force and conquest, but instead, reflect what can happen when large parts of the world adopt a fundamentally cooperative ethic.
It can be difficult to imagine but think about a world in which the way to get ahead is by generating value for other people. If you’re reading this article, chances are you live in a place where this is largely the case—a place that mainly relies on mutually beneficial voluntary exchange to create value.
None of this should be taken as an excuse to ignore the very real problems that confront us on a daily basis. However, taking one day to step back and appreciate just how amazing this all is and how short such a state of affairs has existed can demonstrate how fragile it might be. We often consider unmitigated progress in elevating living standards to be our birthright, but at the same time, we often bristle at taking a minute to reflect on what makes our own very high living standards possible.
A self-conscious gratitude is our best option if we truly want to preserve all that we have. It certainly beats unreflective neglect as a strategy. And a little gratitude can go a long way. So, this Thanksgiving, give in to the cliché. Raise a glass and think about something to be thankful for. Chances are, whatever it is, it’s probably the result of a fundamental ethic of cooperation that did not exist for much of our past.
Catalyst articles by Ben Wilterdink | Full Biography and Publications