It was the start of a bitter Toronto winter in 2004. I was teaching English to refugees, volunteering as an assistant to a hospital minister, and preaching gospel as a missionary. For two years, I had been living on my personal savings of only $125 Canadian dollars a month, with the church providing only housing accommodations. I remember being cold and wet that winter, relying on strangers for the occasional warm drink or hot meal. My fellow missionary with whom I lived could barely speak our assigned language of Spanish, which left the majority of the teaching responsibilities to me. We couldn’t afford fresh fruit. We were on foot or on bikes most of the time to get around. In other words, it had the potential to be a hard winter. It was during that very winter, however, that I realized I was the happiest I had ever been in my life.
During an interview with our mission president in November, I stumbled across the root cause. We had received an assignment from our mission administration during the previous summer to begin each day by listing five different things for which we should give thanks. I had been dutifully performing this seemingly petty task for more than four months, and had found myself writing completely through several notebooks. Many of the items on my list were standard to the average 20-year-old: Friends, my CDs and a college education. I soon discovered, however, that after a few months my list grew increasingly more granular: A warm bed in which I slept well, the kind word from that stranger on the street, the foresight to visit a particular hospital patient. It was this simple activity that had allowed me to live well below the poverty line, and still find a state of bliss.
Although psychologists have been touting the relevance of activities such as this for years, I would like to center my comments on the economic facts that might give you both ammunition for your own personal list and perhaps help you move forward during this sometimes hectic and stressful season.
Here are the facts: If you were born a U.S. citizen, then you were more than 95 percent more likely to be born in some other part of the world, where you would likely experience fewer freedoms and less social mobility. One in two children in the world currently live in families below the world poverty line. Fifty percent of the world’s population lives on less than $2.50 a day, and 80 percent live on less than $10 a day. The top five global spending priorities in billions of U.S. dollars in 1998 were as follows: Military, $780; narcotics, $400; alcohol (just Europe), $105; cigarettes (just Europe), $50; business entertainment (just Japan), $35. The total estimated cost to provide basic water, sanitation, education, nutrition, health care and reproductive care services among developing countries globally in 1998 in billions of U.S. dollars: $40.
In microeconomics, we learn the principle of information asymmetry, or the concept that a given individual does not necessarily possess the same information during a given economic exchange that the other party may possess. Reading the above facts, we must remember that there is a laundry list of associated socioeconomic factors that play into world poverty, and I won’t take the time here to delineate an opposing view to the clearly one-sided argument which the above facts are intended to deliver. I will, however, hypothesize the following in as politically and economically neutral a way as possible: We just might be, perhaps, very fortunate people indeed.
The unfortunate truth is, however, that a large percentage of our population seems to be dissatisfied. Nearly 35 percent of the U.S. population reports dissatisfaction with the future for their families and themselves — the highest level of population dissatisfaction since 1963 ( the era of JFK, Civil Rights Movement, Cuban Missile Crisis and Vietnam). From my own observations, it seems that spending $20 simply isn’t as nice as it used to be (we call that utility).
I’m just a finance guy, but maybe it’s high time we broke out the pen and paper to make a list.
Ben Gochberg lives in Avon.