My eyes on the road in front of me, I miss the spartina grass on the right and the historic homes on the left as I drive to school. When I arrive at the parking lot, the slow-moving carpool line ensures that I notice the potholes and eroded speed bumps, but most of my attention is on other cars. Their glinting metal logos and hard, shiny, plastic exteriors catch my attention through the windshield of my fifteen-year-old, still-chugging 2005 red Mitsubishi Gallant, inciting in me feelings of jealousy, bitterness, lust. I envy the newer cars – the expensive, unshared, bought-unused-for-a-teenager-who-just-barely-passed-their-driving-test ones. I envy the privilege these manufactured products convey – nice meals at restaurants or unshared bathrooms at home or the option to not have an afterschool job.
I overlook the faded orange bus, now leaving the parking lot behind the school after dropping off the kids who might stare with jealousy at a half-functioning maroon car. It promises what they don’t have: the option to take the scenic route, sleep in thirty more minutes, or participate in afterschool clubs.
Gratitude is not saying thank you when someone holds open the door (no, not even when a ma’am or sir is added because we live in South Carolina), and it is not the bold, red, all-caps, THANK YOUs printed on that plastic bag floating down the tidal creek. Rather, the definition of gratitude used by the American Psychological Association is “a sense of thankfulness and happiness in response to receiving a gift.” That is, an awareness of, and the subsequent “thankfulness and happiness” from, receiving physical presents, kind actions, or simply everyday fortune. In my case, it's recognizing the natural beauty of my hometown and the privileges, including driving, that are permitted to me, rather than focusing on what others have, like nice cars or affluent lifestyles. The way to improve South Carolina is with more of this gratitude.
Many researchers have found that those who practice gratitude have a greater desire to share what they have and give back. According to a 2017 study, practices of gratitude, such as journaling, can increase the brain’s neural reward system's response to altruism, physically increasing satisfaction from charitable actions. A 2015 experiment corroborates these results, finding that writing thank-you letters increases both behavioral gratitude and neural reward response. From personal experience, I’ve found I have a much better start to my day when I intentionally appreciate the local landscape that has been deemed selfie-worthy by tourists. Moreover, since I have begun to more actively recognize the advantages and non-ubiquity of car ownership, I have been more driven to help others in my town and elsewhere.
In a similar way, South Carolina voters and lawmakers must more often acknowledge their inherent advantages. Your hometown, for example, may appear inconsequential. However, where you were born, even within one state within one country, has broad and literally life-changing effects. Data from the South Carolina Department of Education suggests that someone born in Mount Pleasant will go to better-funded schools and therefore have greater early opportunities than a descendant of enslaved people from the state’s Corridor of Shame region. Legislators are more likely to come from these opportunity-rich backgrounds, so an increased awareness of their own privilege and a subsequent reevaluation of the challenges that less geographically fortunate South Carolinians face is crucial for truly representative governmental decisions. Gratitude can highlight these discrepancies, hopefully so that one of our counties – McCormick – isn't the third-worst county for social mobility in the entire United States, according to a 2017 study by the Center on Children and Families at Brookings.
South Carolina is filled with good people, but issues like rural – or even local – poverty aren’t in most of our immediate lines of sight that are instead, like mine on the way to school, fixated on the road right ahead. We focus on what we lack and our privileges are forgotten. Gratitude, as so many studies have shown, can help us turn our heads, notice our blessings and others’ misfortunes, and act to remedy societal inequalities. Gratefulness for the immense opportunity education can provide may ensure that its benefits are extended. Appreciation for the gift of our coasts, rather than lust for the wealth that could be extracted from them, may motivate preservation for future generations. Thanks for an ebb in COVID-19 cases, rather than a faraway fixation on maskless normalcy, may accelerate the end of this pandemic. South Carolina has much to improve, but looking around and taking note of not only what we lack, but our gifts as well, can increase both individual happiness and the quality of life for others in our state.
APA dictionary of psychology. (n.d.). American Psychological Association. https://dictionary.apa.org/gratitude
Fiscal year 2017 - 2018 district expense information. (2018). South Carolina Department of Education. https://ed.sc.gov/finance/financial-data/historical-data/district-expense-informat ion/fiscal-year-2017-2018-district-expense-information/
Karns, C. M., Moore, W. E., III, & Mayr, U. (2017). “The cultivation of pure altruism via gratitude: A functional MRI study of change with gratitude practice.” Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 11. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2017.00599
Kini, P., Wong, J., McInnis, S., Gabana, N., & Brown, J. W. (2016). “The effects of gratitude expression on neural activity.” NeuroImage, 128, 1–10. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuroimage.2015.12.040
Krause, E., & Reeves, R. V. (2017, September 5). Rural dreams: Upward mobility in America's countryside. Brookings.