Each year at Thanksgiving we’re reminded that here in America, at this time and place in history, we enjoy an incredible number of privileges and should be grateful for the lot we’ve drawn in life. But to be honest, it’s not easy to maintain a constant sense of gratitude, because our problems (and we all have plenty) keep taking center stage. What are we supposed to do? How do we remain grateful people instead of devolving into those “grumblers and complainers” that the Bible warns us never to become?
Maybe it’s a matter of perspective.
There’s a term you may have heard recently: “First World Problems.” The Urban Dictionary defines “First World Problems” as, “Problems from living in a wealthy, industrialized nation that third worlders would probably roll their eyes at.” There are entire websites devoted to the topic, and Twitter has a hashtag to gather all the examples that people have to offer. Joy and I have included a few examples that we found humorous—and all too familiar.
Thankfulness has a lot to do with perspective. The problems that lead us to grumble and complain seem serious to us—and, of course, some of them genuinely are—but some of the things that rob us of joy are things that others “would probably roll their eyes at.” It all comes down to comparison. The question isn’t just “How big are your problems?” but, “compared to whom?”
In Dan Ariely’s New York Times Bestseller Predictably Irrational, he recounts the following story:
“A few years ago…I met with one of the top executives of one of the big investment companies. Over the course of the conversation he mentioned that one of his employees had recently come to him to complain about his salary.
“’How long have you been with the firm?’ the executive asked the young man.
“’Three years. I came straight from college,’ was the answer.
“’And when you joined us, how much did you expect to be making in three years?’
“’I was hoping to be making about a hundred thousand.’
The executive eyed him curiously.
“’And now you are making almost three hundred thousand, so how can you possible complain?’ he asked.
“’Well,’ the young man stammered, ‘it’s just that a couple of the guys at the desks next to me, they’re not any better than I am, and they are making three hundred ten.’”
Amazing! The young executive was apparently satisfied with his (very generous) salary, but only until he realized that someone else was earning more than he was—and then he began to complain. Ariely added this comment:
“It was for good reason, after all, that the Ten Commandments admonished, ‘Neither shall you desire your neighbor’s house nor field, or male or female slave, or donkey or anything else that belongs to your neighbor.’ This might just be the toughest commandment to follow, considering that by our very nature we are wired to compare.”
I once heard someone say, “Whenever we demand equality, we’re always thinking of someone better off than we are.” That’s the problem with comparison—we always compare our own situation to someone whose lot in life seems better than our own. But comparison works the other way too; when we take a moment to reflect on Third World problems, life in the First World doesn’t seem so bad after all.
Maybe that’s the lesson: “Think globally, act locally.” When we consider the quality of life people have experienced throughout history and all over the globe, we become thankful.