Tuesday, November 26, 2013

13 things to be thankful for this Thanksgiving

The truth is most of us are crazy blessed. I know you've already heard some of the statistics I'm about to present, but just take this as a friendly reminder to be really, really grateful this Thanksgiving. Maybe in re-counting our blessings we'll also find ourselves a little happier and a little more content.

Hurdle 1: Conception

Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start, when all of us were fertilized eggs. We could start even earlier and try to calculate the chances of your parents being alive, meeting, and doing a little hankie pankie at just the right time for your particular egg and sperm to collide to make wonderful you. But I’m not going to go there because I would probably need a trillion smiley faces and I just don’t have the time.

So here you are hanging out with 399 other smiling fertilized eggs, which let’s say represent all of the fertilized eggs in the world when you came into being.

Congratulations, you beat the infinitesimally small odds and you were conceived!

Total count: 400

Hurdle 2: Birth

Uh oh, unfortunately you’re already facing tough luck and you aren’t even born yet.

    • 30 – 50% of fertilized eggs are lost before or during implantation
    • 20% of pregnancies are voluntarily aborted
    • 10  - 20% of known pregnancies end in miscarriage

We'll round and assume that three quarters of all conceptions don’t make it (yep, we could have 28 billion people in the world right now if today’s generation had all made it). But lucky for you, if you're reading this, chances are you made it. Either that or you are a fertilized egg ghost lurking about. 
Congratulations, you were born!

Total count: 100

Hurdle 3: Birth defects

You’ve just been born, so you're probably feeling pretty good about yourself. The process of being born was traumatic and you miss your snug womb with an automatic food dispenser and no diapers, but here you are ready to take on the world!

Or are you?

Unfortunately 3% of all babies are born with a birth defect. Not all are fatal or disabling (I think my crooked pinkies are actually more evolved ear wax cleaners) but they may slow you down.

If you are still a pink smiley face, congratulations, you survived birth without any birth defects!

Total count: 97

Hurdle 4: Surviving past age 5

Now onto other serious matters. We may moan and say our childhoods were less than perfect. But if you made it past the age of five, your childhood was pretty darn good.

Around the world, 5% of children die before the age of five, often from very preventable and curable illnesses like malaria and diarrhea. Be glad that when you had the runs, all your parents had to do was run to the pharmacy for some fast acting Imodium.

We’ll conservatively assume that 2/3s of the kids with birth defects also didn’t make it past the age of five. So that means 5 minus 2 more smiley faces have to go.

Total count: 94

Hurdle 5: Head and shoulders, knees and toes

There are so many parts of our miraculous bodies that we forget to be grateful for everyday. Think about your opposable thumb which let’s you hold things, open things, shake hands and hit the space bar. 

Or what about the fact that you know what rain drops sound like, you can hear Mahalia Jackson sing Amazing Grace and wake up to the sound of your annoying alarm in time for work. There are so many things in life to be grateful for and these are some of the big ones.

    • 8% are visually impaired or have disabling hearing loss
    • 2% of people have some form of paralysis
    • 0.7% people have amputations (U.S. figure)

We’ll remove 10 more smiley faces (due to the bit of statistical overlap)

Total count: 84

Hurdle 6: Avoiding the deadliest diseases

While we are on the subject of health, there are a bagillion diseases out there that we could get. It’s actually more of an anomaly to be healthy than to be sick. Every day we are healthy we should be screaming “it’s a miracle, it’s a miracle! I’m healthy!!”

I can’t get the statistics on every health problem out there, but I can get some of the major ones that are most prevalent and can be most deadly.

   • 31% have chronic pain (U.S. figure)
   • 11% have coronary heart disease, stroke, or cancer (U.S. figure)
   • 5% have diabetes 
   • 0.6% have HIV or TB (mainly in sub-Saharan Africa)

Chances are decent that you may experience one of these at some point in your life. But if you aren't now or you are but you have great medical care, count your blessings!

And look at that, we've now passed the 50% mark and we haven't even gotten to things like salary, education, athleticism, beauty, number of friends, losing loved ones, being in a war zone, or being wrongly convicted for murder.

Total count: 49

Hurdle 7: Mental health

There is another type of health that often gets over looked and that’s mental health. Yet in some ways mental health can impact your life even more than having arms or legs.

About 6% of people suffer from a “Serious Mental Illness” such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

Feeling a little bit happier about your life yet?

Total count: 46

Hurdle 8: Can you read this sentence?

You wouldn’t think that just being able to read would be such a hurdle, but it still is in many places. If you can’t read, it’s hard to get a job, use a phone, follow directions, and read those self-help books people keep giving you to improve your life.

17% of adults are illiterate around the world. Fortunately, this number has been coming down, but for now, let’s remove 8 more smiley faces.

Total count: 38

Hurdle 9: Let there be light and hair dryers

Like literacy, electricity is the door opener to our modern world. Without electricity you can’t use computers and get online. You need it for hospitals and for businesses. Kids need it to study late at night.

It also ensures you don't go out in public with frizzy hair, which might just be the end of the world.

20% of the world doesn’t have electricity. Did you use anything electric today? You’re a pink smiley.

We'll assume anyone who is illiterate also doesn't have electricity so we'll only take one more away.

Total count: 37

Hurdle 10: Flushing your problems away

It’s time to turn our attention to an amenity, perhaps the most important of all, even more important than hair dryers. Yep, I’m talking about the W.C., the commode, the John, the skip to the loo, the toilet. I live in a house of seven girls so sometimes it’s an issue that we only have TWO.

But around the world 36% of people don't have access to any basic sanitation (as in, not even a clean latrine).

After plenty of times in Mozambique squatting over a make-shift latrine that the neighbors could peer into and see my skinny white behind, I am grateful for Ye ol’ porcelain potty. 

But it’s not just the ability to close the door or press a handle and see all my waste vanish into some place I never think about – it’s also the fact that I’m less likely to get cholera and end up with convulsions.

So make it a habit, "every time you make a flush, give some thanks for a life so plush."

We'll assume anyone without electricity also doesn't have basic sanitation. That's minus 8.

Total count: 29

Hurdle 11: A Starbuck's a day keeps poverty at bay

How much money do you have to have to be considered “lucky.” A million dollars? Have a six figure salary with benefits?  Be able to afford a mortgage and a car?

How about $2.50?  What if you had $2.50 to spend every day on everything you could possibly need or want. So you could either have one Starbucks coffee or buy some seeds and start learning to farm really fast.

If you live off of more than $2.50 a day you are luckier than 48% of the world. That’s not quite winning the lottery, but on this planet, it’s doing pretty well for yourself.

We’ll assume that anyone who is illiterate and without electricity or sanitation also lives off of less than $2.50 a day.  Let’s remove 5 more smiley faces.

Total count: 24

Hurdle 12: A college diploma

So now that we've realized we're filthy rich even though we always enjoyed thinking of ourselves as a comfortable middle class Goldilocks - not too poor, not too rich - it's time to turn to education.

Education is another great sifter between the haves and have nots. High school seniors are in a panic right now about which college they are going to get into. Many are clawing to get into the Ivy leagues afraid their careers will fall apart if they don’t make it.

But the truth is if you graduate from any college at all you’re already in the elite of the world. Only 7% of the world has a college education. That's an even lower admission rate than Princeton.

We'll assume those with college degrees are literate (we sure hope so), have electricity and sanitation.

Total count: 3

Hurdle 13: Helping others

I'm ending our journey with an unconventional measure of luck. This one isn't so much luck as it is choice. Happiness comes primarily from human connection, especially helping other people. 

So how do you do with this measure of fortune - have you been fortunate enough to give someone a helping hand this year?

According to The Corporation for National and Community Service, 20% of Americans volunteered through an organization in 2011. This of course doesn't count people who went next door to help a neighbor or did an act of kindness that went unnoticed. 

If you made it this far and are still a pink smiley face, you are in the 1% of the world. Chances are you are actually in the 1% of the 1%, but we didn't go that far. 

By any standard, that's pretty lucky, maybe even lottery-winning lucky. 

Total count: < 1

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

We all have troubles that we face, many which I haven't listed here, and many of you may not have crossed all 13 hurdles (you may not have a college diploma, for example), but you still lead a happy, fulfilling life. The point is not to diminish other sorrows or to hold up these blessings as the end all be all. Rather, it's just to make us pause and consider that we are each probably luckier than we thought.

So as you celebrate Thanksgiving this week, remember the things that make you so lucky. And let's do our best to make everyone a little luckier and a little more content this holiday season with both Thanks and Giving.

Here is a list of charity organizations to consider giving to this holiday season that I would recommend. In the comments section, feel free to add other organizations that you would like to promote as well.

Please share this post with other lucky people out there, Happy Holidays and THANK YOU for reading!! 

Disaster Relief
American Red Cross - Typhoon relief in the Philippines

Samaritan's Purse - Typhoon relief in the Philippines
Christian organization that specializes in disaster relief. I worked with them in Mozambique doing flood relief.

Tumaini Tanzania
Founded and run by a good friend of mine. They sponsor Tanzanian students to go to high school and college. I've personally met many of the students they sponsor. Your money will be well spent.

Deworm The World
This nonprofit was started out of research from the Jameel Poverty Action Lab at MIT, where I did a work-study for a year. Their research showed that deworming is by far the most cost-effective solution for giving kids in developing nations a better chance at a good education - even more effective than more teachers or books. And it's super cheap. It costs less than 50 cents per child and improves school attendance by 25%.

Community outreach and safety nets
Fair Girls
A DC-based nonprofit that works with girls who have been sex-trafficked in DC. Believe it or not, this happens right here where we live. My housemate is a social worker with these girls. She's been working 70 hour weeks and they really need more money to hire another social worker. Consider this cause as well.

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