Christian psychologist David Myers, in his writing and speaking about happiness, has suggested that long-term human happiness is not particularly dependent on our wealth or health. If you tell him that a year ago one person won millions of dollars in the lottery and another became paralyzed, you've given him no sense of their current happiness. We quickly adapt to our current context, and in the year since the lottery winnings and the accident, these individuals are no longer especially happy because of their money or overly saddened by their loss of movement.
For example, a 65-degree day in March is gorgeous; a 65-degree day in July is chilly. We become habituated to our recent experiences.
Perhaps this explains why so many of us find it a challenge to be thankful. That which was a pleasant and gracious act last year quickly becomes an expected entitlement. That for which I was thankful in the past, I now assume to be my right.
Are we really that fickle? I am. I have been blessed with incredible health, yet I have never appreciated it. I have only taken it for granted. Only when I am ill do I recognize the incredible gift I have been given.
Going back to weather, perhaps this explains the benefit of living through the four seasons. Maeve Binchy wrote in her short story, "Holiday Weather," describing a rare beautiful day in her Irish countryside, "Thank God we don't get weather like this all the time. It would not be a green island, and we'd be so used to it we wouldn't be calling out our thanksgiving to the very heavens as we are today."
On a similar theme, in her novel "Whitethorn Woods" she writes, "If sunsets were universally scarlet and gold, then we wouldn't value them at all."
I live in a weather system dominated by clouds and precipitation. It is no accident that many of the experts on seasonal affective disorder live in and around the Mid-Atlantic region. Seattle might have more rainy days, but they also have more sunny hours. As someone once told me, "When you live in the Mid-Atlantic, you will have to teach your children sunshine as an abstract concept."
It seems that I need the four seasons and the long and cloudy low-pressure systems to help me appreciate the sunshine in my life. If I lived in a sunny climate, I would just complain about the lack of shade. In fact, I live in a highly developed society, and I take those benefits for granted. I work in a pleasant office, and I complain when the air conditioning goes down for an hour.
I paraphrase Maeve Binchy's words to say: "Thank God we don't have perfect lives every day. It would not feel special; we would feel personal entitlement. We wouldn't be calling out our thanksgiving to the very heavens as we are today."
Today, I will be thankful for my early morning cup of coffee, though I drink it every day. I will be thankful for my wife, though I express it far too seldom. I will be thankful that my car starts, though I don't understand the mechanics. I will be thankful that the traffic was light and that my drive to work included no stop lights. I will be thankful for a choice among prime parking spaces. I will be thankful that I have an umbrella. I will be thankful for work responsibilities that are predictable and manageable, though sometimes they become routine. I will be thankful that I feel better than I did last summer. I will be especially thankful if I don't need the umbrella. And if it is rainy, I will start complaining all over again.
I admit it. I am one unthankful brute. Where's the food?
Dr. Gary L. Welton is assistant dean for institutional assessment, professor of psychology at Grove City College, and a contributor to The Center for Vision & Values. He is a recipient of a major research grant from the Templeton Foundation to investigate positive youth development.