Thursday, November 22, 2012

The Thankful Agnostic

Every Thanksgiving season the last few years, I go through a predictable sequence of thoughts. First, I start thinking what a good idea it is to have a holiday devoted, at least in theory, to being thankful. Surely one of the keys to a happy life is appreciating what you already have? I've believed this for years, and it seems to work pretty well. Besides, I really do have an enormous list of things to be thankful for. But then I start to think, “Is 'thankful' really the right word?” For religious people, being thankful implies that they are actually giving thanks to God. But I'm not a religious person in any traditional sense, and I'm agnostic about the existence of God. So what does it mean for me to be thankful? Does the idea even make sense? I think it does.

I've believed for years that one of the most important things to achieve in life is to appreciate being alive. In fact, I think my science-centered, agnostic outlook makes me appreciate some things even more. When I think about the enormity of the universe, and how vanishingly, infinitesimally small the earth is (not to mention all of its inhabitants, however big their egos may be) it makes earth and life seem all the more fragile, rare, and precious. Then I think about how this tiny little speck we live on is thousands of millions of years old—one third the age of the universe, and hundreds of thousands of times as old as recorded history. This little speck is ancient. Venerable. Precious beyond imagining. Sure, it's a tough old world, and it's got its problems, but it truly is all we've got. Some things are cliches because they're true.

As for agnosticism, when I think that there could be no heaven or hell (and I doubt very much that they exist) then this short life we get becomes a tiny, priceless interlude between two enormous, painless nothings (funny how we spend so much more time thinking about the future nothing than the one we've already had). Just as the earth is like a jewel in the enormity of space and time, life is a jewel in the enormity of whatever comes before and after. Of course, you may think I'm wrong about heaven and hell, and you may be right. But I hope you'll agree with me that life—this life—is precious. If you believe this life is more or less expendable, because it's just a prelude to something greater, then I'd like to convince you to rethink that. Not necessarily the afterlife part, but certainly the this-life part. Still, I want to give credit where it's due. Religious people may actually be a little better at appreciating their blessings than secular types. They have rituals that remind them to stop and be thankful, and secular types would do well to follow their example.

But what does it mean to be thankful, if you're secular? I suppose it just means appreciating what you already have. It's true that I don't actually say “Thank you” to a supreme being, but I'm still appreciative and grateful for the things I have. “Thankful” may not be quite as precise as “appreciative”, but I figure it's close enough, and I'm going to keep using it. For me, being thankful relates to something I've always believed in: it's a lot better to be happy by learning to appreciate what you have than by pinning your happiness to what you can might gain in the future. Someone who can be thunderstruck with happiness when they see a gorgeous cloud formation, or hear a great song, is much richer than someone who thinks they won't really be happy until they trade their Porsche for a Ferrari. Not richer in a monetary sense, of course, just richer in the way that actually matters.

But appreciating what we already have is hard. Evolution wired us to strive and survive, not to be happy. It's hard to ever be satisfied. We let ourselves think, “If I just get that 4G phone, then...THEN I'll really be happy”. But we probably won't. We'll be thrilled with it for a few days, maybe, and then having it will just become the new daily routine. Psychologists call this the “hedonic treadmill.” What this means is that happiness has a tendency to stay constant. Most people have a sort of set-point for happiness, like a thermostat. We live through windfalls and disasters, and it turns out that after a while, we're close to the same level we were before. That's why most of us keep getting on that treadmill and running after bigger and more expensive things to try to keep getting happier. When you have that Porsche, it will start to seem mundane, so you start thinking that Ferrari will really make you happy. But then you get it, and the thrill fades. Your thermostat returns to its set point, and you start thinking about what other acquisition might really do it this time.

The hedonic treadmill may help explain how there can be so many depressed people in a modern country, where things really are a whole lot better than they used to be in all kinds of ways. Compared to most people throughout human history, we're fabulously wealthy: we have indoor plumbing, clean drinking water, enough to eat, and the reasonable expectation of living into our 80's or 90's. Life has also progressed in morality and justice in lots of ways. While there's still far too much racial hatred, the days of “White” and “Colored” drinking fountains are gone. While women still need to gain equal representation in congress, and equal pay in the workplace, a hundred years ago they couldn't even vote. We have a long way to go, yes, but that doesn't mean we haven't come a long way. Some people seem to think that if you stop to appreciate how much you've gained, you'll lose the drive to achieve more. I think that's crazy. Why make the world a better place, if you're never going to stop and appreciate how nice you've already made it? It's not an either/or situation. We can appreciate what we have while working to make things even better. 

When it comes to material things, though, it's worth stopping to ask whether getting them will really make things better, or if they'll just make us work harder for something that will seem mundane anyway after a few weeks. Maybe what makes more sense is to cultivate a habit of appreciation, to try to raise the happiness set-point our minds tend to return to. Thinking we can raise that point by endlessly chasing after stuff won't work. In fact, it'll backfire, and the dial will drop because you can't figure out why it's not higher. It's not about getting the things you want so much as wanting the things you already have.

That's how I see things, anyway. I may not be thanking “the man upstairs”, but I'm still thankful. I'm thankful for my amazing family and wonderful friends. I'm thankful I can get up out of my nice, warm bed, turn up my heater if it's chilly, walk into the kitchen and turn a dial and get fresh water. I'm thankful for my refrigerator, and that I don't have to eat turnips, potatoes, and salt pork all winter long. I'm thankful for the four-wheeled machine in my garage, which will rocket me at breakneck speeds to places that would have taken days to get to in past ages. I'm thankful I can write a scathing letter to the editor about the government, and not only will they print it, but no secret police will come for me in the wee hours. Because I was sick at my stomach a few days ago, today I'm thankful that I can eat and enjoy it. I'm thankful for my dog, who makes me smile several times a day. I'm thankful for the medicine that keeps him from getting heartworms or rabies; and for the medicine that keeps me from getting smallpox or polio. I'm thankful for all the amazing ideas people have had over the centuries, and how I can turn on my computer and instantly learn about them. I'm thankful I can post this blog, and that millions of people could (could I said) read it. I'm thankful there are more wonders in this world than I will ever be able to learn about, no matter how much I try. 

It's not that there aren't some bad thinks in the world. There are plenty, and they need to be faced with open eyes. But there are so many great things about it, too. As far as I'm concerned, whether there's any intrinsic meaning in life or not, there's plenty of meaning to be found in trying to make it better, while appreciating what's great about it already.

Happy Thanksgiving.