When it comes to gratitude, I’ve come to agree with the English writer G.K. Chesterton. He had quite a lot to say about gratitude, but my favourite Chesterton aphorism is this:
“I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought, and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.”
Chesterton was a Christian, but gratitude does not require Christianity, or even a deity. You might be very doubtful that any god exists and yet still be hugely grateful for your own circumstances and those of your family, friends, country, planet.
So every year I try to write down some things in the external world for which we all should be grateful – the many, many ways in which life is getting better.
My sense, reinforced by the speaking I’ve done on the same theme, is that people are surprised to hear that not everything is getting worse.
I used to think that this was a rather lonely viewpoint. But in the past couple of years we have a few prominent thinkers saying it very loudly – notably, Steven Pinker in Enlightenment Now and the late Hans Rosling and his family in Factfulness, two books I recommend if you want to cheer someone up about the state of the world over the holiday season. These books are good news for good news. (Incidentally, Factfulness is also one of Bill Gates’ favourite books.)
So what can we be grateful for as we head into 2019?
3 things to be grateful for
- The economies of Australasia and the region continue to grow. For lower-income countries, growth mostly continues to top 5%. For Australia, growth in 2019 will probably continue to be a little under 3% – not dramatic, but enough to keep the unemployment rate from rising and greater misery from taking hold.
- Related to this, government in much of the world continues to be good. And Australian government continues to be terrific by world standards, even when it seems awful to many Australians. The country ranks number three in the world on the UN Human Development Index, behind Norway, and pretty much level with Switzerland. Yes, the Australian prime minister has changed a lot in the past decade. In some countries this would be the trigger for wild instability. In Australia, things just move on. As I wrote last week, we should reject talk that democratic government is a catastrophe.
- Technology continues to spread, and with it spreads knowledge. The UN announced in early December that 3.9 billion people are now using the internet – more than half of the global population. Africa has experienced the strongest growth of all in internet access. If you think the internet has improved your life, think what it’s doing for people who could barely afford a single book at the start of the decade.
Why do people not focus more on all the good things going on? I suspect it’s partly because the good things happen slowly, and partly because a lot of them happen far away. The year-by-year growth of China still barely registered on people even in the early 2000s, when it had already dramatically transformed the world’s most populous country. It just kept on gradually happening at the very same time that people were being told over and over that the poor always got poorer.
We need to learn from all this gradual improvement. One of the best ideas I heard in 2018 was from the economist Max Roser, who has done as much as anyone to explain the ways in which the world is getting better. It was simply this:
“We know that it is possible to make the world a better place, because we already did it.”
We should be very grateful that our world is getting better in so many ways. And it’s all the more reason to work to make it better still.