By Thomas H. Little, Ph.D. and SLLF Director of Curriculum Development and Research

These are challenging times! In many places around the world, tensions are high as peoples and nations attempt to adapt to new social, political and economic realities. Here in America, we await the dawn of a new presidential administration and the many unknowns that accompany such a transition. Individually, many are facing uncertain economic futures, political challenges and health concerns. During such times, it is easy to let our attention be drawn exclusively to the challenges we face and focus on the negative. As we enter this holiday season, I implore you to turn your attention instead to the good – to the many things for which we, as a nation and individuals, can be thankful.

Today, I want to introduce to you a concept that I believe will help all of us focus more on what is going right than what we believe to be going wrong: zero-based gratitude.

When a relatively unknown Southern Governor named James Earl “Jimmy” Carter was elected President of the United States in 1976, he brought many things with him from his native Georgia: a slow Southern drawl, a very toothy grin, a cadre of government “outsiders” and an approach to governing known as Zero-Based Budgeting. While governments traditionally change budgets at the margins (incremental budgeting), assuming that the new budget should include everything from the old budget, with a few additions, zero-based budgeting asked agencies to do the opposite. Instead of starting with what they had before and adding from there, zero-based budgeting asked that agencies do the opposite – assume they have nothing (zero) and then build the budget from the ground up, focusing on those things that are really needed in order to achieve the mission of the agency. Although this did not work very well as a budgeting tool (agencies, of course, were convinced they “really needed” to do everything they had been doing and then some), I think it might be a more effective tool to help us count our blessings.

Like incremental budgeting, we all too often assume that everything we have today, both as individuals and as a nation, we will have tomorrow. As you approach this holiday season, I would like for you to try and set that assumption aside for a moment. To practice “zero-based gratitude,” assume, for a very sad moment, that everything you hold dear (personally, economically, politically) is gone – you have nothing. Now, think about the things you would miss the most. For example, my list of “must haves” looks something like this:

  • Friends and family. There is probably no one we take for granted more than those closest to us – we think they will always be there for us because they have always been there. I do not want to imagine what my life would be like without friends and family to laugh with, cry with, and enjoy life’s everyday moments with.
  • Health. For those who know me, you will know that I am far from the perfect physical specimen. I don’t exercise as much as I should, weigh more than I should (I suspect those two are related) and I have two artificial hips that limit my mobility a bit. However, as I am getting older and see what others are going through with diabetes, high blood pressure, etc., I feel pretty darn good. I am thankful that I can get out of bed under my own power everyday.
  • Economic Security. While the economy is clearly better than it was during the “great recession,” too many people are only getting by paycheck to paycheck, or not getting by at all. Fortunately, thanks to SLLF and my wife’s job at UNC Greensboro, we do not have to worry about a roof over our heads, where our next meal is coming from, or providing for the needs of our children. I cannot imagine what it would be like to have those concerns hanging over your head everyday.
  • A Governance Voice. Even if my candidate(s) did not win this year’s election (in North Carolina we were electing for a whole slew of offices), I am thankful that I could at least participate in the selection process. If my candidate(s) did win, I can be thankful that my voice will be represented in the halls of government. In many countries, people do not even have the opportunity to lose an election.
  • A Constitutional Democracy. We live in a governing system built around limitations and distributive power. The executive and legislative branches are restricted by the national or state constitution. The executive branch is constrained by the legislative and judicial branches and the legislative branch is constrained by the other two. Even if my candidate(s) did not win, I am confident that they will not be able to do too much damage before the next election and then I can raise my voice again.

Are there other things for which I am thankful? Of course – I am thankful for college basketball, classic television stations that allow me to watch MASH and WKRP in Cincinnati, historical biographies, anything wrapped in bacon and fried, and Mountain Dew.  But, I could survive without those things (although the Mountain Dew would be a bit iffy!). What would be on your list of things that you have to have and for which you will always be grateful?

When times are difficult, it is easy to focus on what we don’t have – better health, more money, more united politics, more pleasing election results, etc. However, as we approach this holiday season, practice “zero-based gratitude,” remembering what really matters and taking nothing for granted and we will all, as individuals and as a nation, be better for it.

Happy Holidays and may the peace of the season be with you and yours!