The Thankfulness Trap

We’re frequently exhorted to be thankful for what we have. “You have a roof over your head, a refrigerator full of food, and a gaggle of gadgets and streaming services, what more could you want?” Our guilt over our discontent soon becomes a new source of discontent, spawning a new set of desires: maybe what we need is community or a sense of purpose or Enlightenment.

Of course our inability to be happy no matter how much material comfort we have has been remarked upon throughout history. But I think one major source of our dissatisfaction, at least in the US, isn’t that we’re not thankful for what we have. Of course we’re thankful! It’s that we’re terrified that it will all slip away.

It’s not an unreasonable fear. A single medical emergency can leave a family bankrupt and unable to respond to any further financial shocks. Renters are left to the whims of landlords. You have a roof over your head only until the company that owns your building decides to sell the units off as condos, rent them out as Airbnbs, or double the rent. The 2008 financial crisis decimated retirement accounts, for those who were lucky enough to have them, and left mortgages underwater. Real estate, that most dependable of assets, suddenly became a liability instead of an investment. Even as housing prices surged again, it’s been hard to forget that those valuations can plummet practically overnight. Jobs, even entire industries, can disappear in a flash. And that’s to say nothing of the potential for natural disasters and, of course, the pandemic.

While most calls to thankfulness are well-meaning, there’s a political side as well. As Alex Pareene has written, right-wing think tanks love to crow about how low-income families have DVD players and freezers full of Hot Pockets while conveniently omitting the fact that the cost of health care, housing, and higher education have soared in recent decades, squeezing low and middle-income households alike squeezed for money. Luxuries get cheaper while key necessities get more expensive. Student loan payments, insurance premiums and out-of-pocket fees, and rent or mortgage payments eat up so much people’s budgets that it’s hard even for the middle class to get ahead these days. I suppose that’s why even with the abundance of cheap food, more than one-in-ten households were “food insecure” (ie, went hungry) in 2019.

Meanwhile, high levels of visible homelessness, especially on the west coast, are a constant reminder of what can happen if you fall through the US’s weak, patchy safety net. It’s only natural to be afraid, and to want just a bit more income, just a slightly more desirable piece of real estate, just a slightly fancier job. Because it’s never enough to actually protect us from plunging into real, painful, grinding poverty if things get bad.

The truth is, we shouldn’t be left to build our own safety nets. Food, housing, education, health care, and yes internet (re: connectivity), should be basic human rights.

So, be thankful for what you have. But don’t let anyone shame you for wanting a little safety.

This was originally published in my newsletter in 2021