Summary: If I am going to cultivate a grateful heart, I need to change my focus: 1. From what I don’t have to what I do have. 2. From getting a blessing to being a blessing. 3. From earth to eternity.
One of the great mysteries of our culture is that we are the most privileged and prosperous people who have ever lived on the face of the earth — past and present — and yet many Americans are not happy. We have more of everything, and yet we are not content. Even when good things happen we figure out why it was not good enough.
Gregg Easterbrook recently wrote a book entitled: The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse. Chuck Colson reports that, “He says that life expectancy has nearly doubled in the past century and continues to increase. The average real per-capita income has doubled just since 1960. Along with a rise in income is the good news that the price of food and many durable goods keeps falling. Our standard of living has risen to levels our great-grandparents couldn’t have imagined. For most of our history, the average home had one room for every two people; today there are two rooms for every one person. By any measure of affluence — health care, leisure, technology — the average American enjoys a quality of life beyond anyone’s wildest dreams even a few decades ago. We have more of everything except, of course, happiness. The percentage of Americans who would call themselves as ‘happy’ hasn’t changed since the 1950s, but the percentage of those describing themselves as ‘very happy’ is down and continues to decline. During the same period, the percentage of Americans and Europeans who suffer a bout of depression has climbed to 25 percent and shows no signs of abating. An estimated 7 percent of all Americans suffer at least one incidence of major, debilitating depression a year.”
Somehow we have lost the sense of wonder about life. We have stopped seeing how simple, how good and wonderful life can be. We can’t just blame the news for seeing all the things that are wrong with the world. Easterbrook tells us that the Roman orator Cicero called gratitude not only the “greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others.” The philosopher Immanuel Kant called ingratitude the “essence of vileness.” But many people are facing life with a daily sense of dread rather than a daily sense of thanksgiving.
The perfect example of this was the Oprah Winfrey show that aired this September. Oprah, whose show now airs in 109 countries around the world, celebrated her 19th season by giving away new cars to every person in her audience that day. The 276 audience members were selected because friends or family had written about their need for a new car. One couple had 400,000 miles on their two vehicles, and one mom wrote in that her son drove a car that looked like it had been in a gunfight. Oprah began by calling 11 people out of the audience onto the stage. She gave each of them a brand new Pontiac G6. Then she distributed a gift box to everyone in the audience, telling them that one of them contained the keys to a 12th new car. But when the audience opened the boxes, each one had a set of keys. Oprah jumped up and down and yelled: “Everybody gets a car Everybody gets a car Everybody gets a car ” There was pandemonium as everyone yelled and hugged each other. Then they went to the parking lot of Oprah’s Harpo Studios to see their cars, all decorated with giant red bows.
But not all is well in Oprah land. Now the people who received the new cars are complaining. Even though the local taxes and licensing fees were covered as a part of the gift, the IRS is going to take a sizable bite out of their pocket, because the $28,000, which is the value of the car, will be added to their income for this year. Their state income tax will also go up. And their car insurance will increase dramatically. Some of the winners thought that all this should have been taken into account and they should have been given the cash to cover these expenses as well. Richard Whately said it well when he wrote in the 1800’s: “It is generally true that all that is required to make men unmindful of what they owe God for any blessing is that they should receive that blessing often and regularly.”
How do I keep from living out the progress paradox — becoming ungrateful and hardened to the increasing blessings I have in life? What I need is a change of focus. The first change of focus I need is: I need to change my focus from what I don’t have to what I do have. The problem of living in our culture is the extreme commercialization of everything. It used to be that people did not even recognize much of the poverty they lived in, because everyone was the same. They looked around them and no one was significantly better off than they were. My parents used to talk about this when they grew up during the Great Depression. They didn’t realize they were poor, because everyone lived like they did. But now we have television showing us beautiful cars, clothes, electronic gadgets, new homes, new tools, new appliances, etc. We have malls crammed with the latest of everything. The mail is filled with ads and catalogs. Even our bills come with advertisements disguised as “offers.” Game shows give away millions of dollars everyday in cash and prizes. People we know are able to afford things that we wish we could have. American businesses do not want us to be content, and they work very hard to make sure we are not.