Envy, Gratitude, & Contentment
Thanksgiving week is a perfect time for us to acknowledge the fundamental difference between envy and gratitude, coveting and contentment. American culture has a consumer-driven economic system that, to some degree, fuels itself on coveting and wanting what others already have. Are we not told over and over again by marketers and advertisers that we deserve things that are bigger, better, and nicer than what we have? Are we not told that we would be so much happier if we just went out and bought whatever it is they are promoting because we deserve it? Isn’t the American Dream predicated on the fundamental concept of having a better life than the previous generation? We don’t just want to give our kids what we had – we want to give them something better, right? Through social media, most people run a highlight reel of their life. And then we wonder why we are never satisfied and why we remain restless and discontent.
There was an intentional study done at Harvard over a 75-year period. They tracked 268 male students who graduated from Harvard College between the years of 1938 and 1940, men who have now mostly passed away, in order to find out what makes for a happy and meaningful life over the long haul. Here’s what they discovered. Love is what matters most. Connection to other people and forming friendships is what matters. Moving from self-centeredness to connection is what matters, and working through challenges and adversity in life makes us who we are. Without adversity and disappointment, we cannot build character and learn resilience. The research found that money and power, although important in achieving business success, do not necessarily equate to more happiness unless they are accompanied by the other things that bring us love, connection, and joy. There are some lonely billionaires still looking for purpose.
Duke theologians Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon once said, “Our problem as humans is not that we are full of desire, aflame with unfulfillment. Our problem is that we long for that which is unfulfilling. We attempt to be content with that which can never satisfy… what we want is power and status. Alas, we find that no matter what we have acquired, there is always someone we envy.”
We all have a God-sized hole in our heart and we throw everything under the sun at it – sex, money, power, status, alcohol, drugs, you name it. Nothing can fill it once and for all. Only a deep spirituality and connection with God can take away the restlessness. We should heed the words of the Apostle Paul as we approach Thanksgiving and focus on the good things of life. “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”
There is too much negativity, polarization, contempt, and cynicism in our culture. It becomes toxic. Paul later continues, “I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty.” Being grateful for what we already have can help eliminate fear and anxiety, envy and jealousy, and lead us to a life of gratitude and contentment.
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