Picked up a book recently on the history of Europe from 1648 to 1815 (“Pursuit of Glory,” by Tim Blanning). It is a thick tome—more than 700 pages—and I cheerfully confess I did more skimming than aught else. Nonetheless I gleaned some interesting impressions.

First and foremost is a deep appreciation for how much easier life has gotten for human beings. On an intellectual level we all know this. Reading this level of detail about the everyday facets of life creates that awareness on an emotional level.

I never understood the extreme difficulties, dangers, and expense of travel (thus trade and communication) and its impact on daily life: One reason famines were so common was the difficulty of moving grain from areas of availability to areas of need. This difficulty was compounded by the slowness of communication (you had to know about it first before you could act), as well as the frequent lack of a central government with the power or ability to act. And in some of the most reprehensible cases, the lack of motivation to act.

Some of the dangers of travel were due to lack of infrastructure (poor or nonexistent roads—think trails or cowpaths—the roads of the Roman Empire were by far the exception and most have long since fallen into disrepair), or even rudimentary technology (ships might wait for days or weeks for favorable winds to sail). Other dangers were man-made (highwaymen), as well as many expenses (tariffs were popular and often every local authority would impose some fee or charge, so that even a journey of a few hundred miles could result in dozens of taxes).

As I read on and on, a deep sense of gratitude pervaded me. Just a few pages of the past created a wonderful understanding and awareness of how blessed most of us are, how many of our “difficulties” are relatively minor.

Many (I among them) believe that one real key to both happiness and a long life is an ongoing sense of appreciation for what does work in our lives, and greeting and living each day with an attitude of