Adelberg: Grateful New Year

We should resolve to live with gratitude.

by Steven Adelberg | 1/3/19 2:00am

Congratulations! You made it another year, another leap through time and space around the sun into a momentous 2019. As we approach this new year of life and experience, some of us take a moment to make resolutions that — hopefully — will stand the test of time. These resolutions reflect us with a rare authenticity — they are our highest hopes, our deepest insecurities and our most honest appraisals of our own selves.

In this modern America, a market-based society long devoted to the pursuit of profit, we usually resolve to cut negative practices and habits out of the present while seeking to gain positive things in the foreseeable future. We resolve to smoke less, diet more, drink less, read more, spend less, save more. This funny sort of profit-maximization as applied to our personal lives sometimes motivates us to live better lives but usually fails by Jan. 31.

Although markets theoretically work best when people maximize profit in the marginal moment between the present and the future, life does not work this way. In real life, people exist in the present. Everyone acts, experiences, plans and remembers in the present. This perpetual now presents us with a wealth of experience; from shining sun to sparkling stars; from obstacles overcome to lessons learned; from found friendship to love lost. We find the meaning of our experience within this everlasting present. As we evaluate our world and weigh the good against the bad, we should find that gratitude is a much better guide for action and experience than greed ever can be.

Gratitude is the recognition and appreciation of the good in one’s world. By contrast, greed is the recognition and appreciation of the good that is not in one’s world — greed is a bit too obsessed with others and the future to describe our own present realities. In a beautiful world supporting an abundance of cooperative life that is big enough for us all to explore and flourish within, gratitude is a simple and visceral reaction to a human experience we can appreciate.

Gratitude is also a crucial component for our moral compass. The Oxford Dictionary defines gratitude as a “readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness.” Gratitude not only encourages us to act with kindness; it recognizes and rewards the ethical behavior of others. This virtuous cycle of kindness makes gratitude an almost universal pillar of world religions and an invaluable quality in the social world. As a form of happiness, gratitude is also intrinsically good. Greed, by contrast, is strongly denounced by the Parliament of World Religions and proven by game theory to frequently cause suboptimal social outcomes. Whether you are devoutly religious or somewhere on the secular ethical altruism/egotism spectrum, a bit more gratitude this year will make life happier and more virtuous for you and all those around you.

Yet the greed-is-good capitalists of the right and the equally jealous Marxists of the left still attack gratitude as harmful. They say that a grateful consumer base would be too satisfied to engage with a market premised on unsatisfied needs and that an oppressed but somehow grateful underclass would be too complacent to undertake glorious revolution. Hidden within these critiques is a dark assumption that reality is too negative to be summed up by gratitude, a worldview of pessimism that peddles sadness and fear over happiness and hope.

They are flat-out wrong: the many magnificent and astronomically improbable miracles that combine in this very moment to make life’s basic existence possible stand as their own testament to the basic goodness of existence. It makes absolutely no sense to keep consumers unsatisfied to support the market or make the underclass feel oppressed to hasten egalitarian revolution when the entire purpose of markets and revolutions is to keep people happy and free. Their shared axiom that making people sad can make people happy is entirely irrational, an intellectual sleight of hand to poorly disguise the fact that sadness and fear only breed more sadness and fear. Look no further than the 20th century failures of communism and capitalism to make their societies more equal or satisfied. Doctrines predicated on pessimistic assumptions that necessitate oppression or scarcity are doomed to fail because existence is fundamentally good.

When existence is fundamentally good, gratitude is a much more reliable motivator of progressive action than greed can ever be. Gratitude prevents people from taking the good for granted, instilling an appreciation for the social fabric that makes our great ways of life possible. This appreciation encourages us to maintain and build upon this shared civilizational foundation, leading to stable social progress over time. This idea is one of the oldest in political philosophy, stretching from Enlightenment philosopher Edmund Burke to modern thinker Dr. Jordan B. Peterson in the West and from Buddha to today’s Dalai Lama in the East. By contrast, greed has been denounced since Aristotle as a motivator of regressive revolutions that tear up age-old constitutions in favor of untested social systems that end in disaster. Gratitude is the progressive value we need to maintain American values in the Trump era, not greed for untested systems of nationalism or socialism.

Society faces a basic choice between gratitude and greed as we enter the personal and political worlds of 2019. We can recognize, appreciate and improve the worlds we live in or deny, depreciate and destroy them. This year, I resolve to be grateful for the goodness in my life. I resolve to recognize the best in everyone I meet. I resolve to show my family how much they mean to me. I resolve to improve upon the existing American social fabric and reject radicalism this election cycle. I resolve to appreciate the opportunities here at Dartmouth and expand them for others lest the old traditions fail. And I hope you too find a place for gratitude in your own life.