Expressing gratitude, according to self-help gurus and neuroscientists alike, is a sure route to being a happier person. Thanksgiving, then, should be the happiest of all holidays—and not just because of the turkey dinner with all the fixings and the football-watching marathon. In addition to the good things this holiday brings, it also contributes to well-being by encouraging us to give thanks for the good things in our lives. And when I do stop and think about it, I am grateful for a great many things.
On a personal level, I’ve got loving and beloved friends and family, a happy and sane home life, relatively good health, and work that I find meaningful and stimulating. I grew up in an overwhelmingly French-speaking town, but went to English schools all my life, allowing me to become almost perfectly bilingual, and now I live in one of the safest big cities in the world. I had the pleasure of spending years formally studying music, philosophy, and economics, all of which I now have the privilege of continuing to study informally these many years later.
On a political level, I’m grateful to be living here and now, in this country and century. Canada is one of the most economically free countries in the world, and not coincidentally, one of the wealthiest. Thanks to a newfound liberty and dignity for inventors and businesspeople starting just a couple of hundred years ago in northern Europe, an explosion of innovation and rapid economic growth has made almost everyone much better off today than anyone could have conceived of back then. Furthermore, in much of the world, the lot of women and minorities has improved dramatically. And despite the impression left by a media formula that still favours bad news over good, violence of all kinds continues to decline.
If I sometimes complain—and I do, about things both big and small—I like to think it’s because I can see an even better world just around the corner, and I know we could get there a lot faster if we would only tweak a few things. Of course, as often as not, I complain because I haven’t been managing my sleep schedule properly and I’m just cranky. Assuming that my motives are always noble is an example of a self-serving bias, by the way, one of many that can get in the way of objectivity and clear-headedness, and thereby keep us from that better tomorrow.
I do see a better world, though, and I look forward to moving toward it, in fits and starts, as we humans are wont to do. I look forward to the continuing spread of Enlightenment values and sensibilities: reason, science, peace, and trade. I look forward to the further democratization of human life through that most democratic of institutions: the market. Instead of imposing majority (or plurality) preferences on each other in alternating cycles as the pendulum swings from left to right, the market allows multiple options to coexist peacefully. The more we can allow each other the freedom to live our lives as we see fit, without trying to force our values down each other’s throats, the more experiments in living we can carry out, with all the benefits that we know experimentation brings.
It is important to note that this better world does not rely, as Marxist and other utopias do, on a violation of human nature. We are flawed and fallible creatures, which is a good reason not to invest in some of us the power to rule over others. We tend to act for ourselves in the first instance, and for others only in widening and weakening circles of empathy, but how could it be otherwise? As long as we do not initiate force against each other, this egoism can spur us to serve each other through positive-sum trade, and can even be a fountainhead of creativity.
I look forward to a time when the legitimacy of peacefully pursuing your own interests is more widely recognized. On a related note, I look forward to a time when actions are not judged primarily by their “good” intentions, but by their actual effects. Many altruistic or seemingly altruistic acts do more harm than good, and many egoistic ones are immensely beneficial. To judge according to intentions alone is to care more about appearing virtuous than about actually working toward a better world.
We have already come so far, and I am truly grateful to the giants of the past who gave so much of themselves—altruistically perhaps, but with a deep and healthy egoism as well, I am convinced. And I look forward with optimism, in this age of information, that we will do what it takes to continue to evolve our institutions and bring them more in line with the accumulated knowledge and wisdom of humankind.
* Bradley Doucet is a writer living in Montreal. He has studied philosophy and economics, and is currently completing a novel on the pursuit of happiness. He also is QL's English Editor.