Thanksgiving’s missing ingredient

            This year Americans celebrated Thanksgiving by spending about 30 billion dollars on meals, travel and ancillary expenses (not including Black Friday spending). Approximately 45 million turkeys were purchased and cooked. And, according to AAA, approximately 43 million Americans traveled over 50 miles to spend Thanksgiving with friends and family.

            Americans give their money and time to celebrate Thanksgiving Day. They give their afternoon to watch the Detroit Lions. They give their diets a reprieve. The one thing they might not give on Thanksgiving Day is thanks. It’s the missing ingredient in our celebration.

            And that’s a shame, according to Dr. Robert Emmons, professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis, because giving thanks is good for a person – really good. Emmons has done ground-breaking research into the causes and effects of gratitude. His findings suggest that it is simply unhealthy – physically and emotionally – to lack gratitude.

            Dr. Emmons has written that there “are reasons to believe that experiences of gratitude might be associated – perhaps even in a causal fashion – with happiness and well being. Researchers, writers, and practitioners have all speculated that gratitude possesses happiness-bestowing properties.”

            Emmons’s research found that grateful people make better neighbors. They were more likely than others to help someone with a personal problem or to offer emotional support to another.

            His research also suggests that there are physical benefits associated with giving thanks. People who regularly focus on their reasons for gratitude get more sleep and enjoy better sleep quality. They even experience fewer symptoms of physical illnesses.

            Giving thanks is emotionally healthy as well. Those who do so regularly report a greater sense of optimism and a more profound connectedness to others. They feel less lonely. The bottom line is that thankful people are happier and healthier than their unthankful peers.

            So what does it take to be a more thankful person? Apparently it does not take better or more comfortable circumstances. Emmons randomly divided students into three subject groups. One was to keep a journal of gratitude-inducing experiences, another a journal of irritants and the third a journal of events that affected their lives during the week. It is statistically unlikely that those in the gratitude group experienced more positive circumstances than the others, yet they were happier and healthier than their peers in the other two groups.

            This strongly suggests that gratitude is not dependent upon one’s circumstances but on one’s determined choice to reflect on the positive aspects of his or her circumstances. The person who is intentional about counting blessings is almost certain to find more blessings to count than the person who is not, and will be in a much better place to do so when life gets tough.

            And since, as Dr. Emmons puts it, gratefulness is “anchored in spirituality”; and since “a secular perspective is going to tend to erode that sense of gratefulness”; it is important to strengthen one’s spiritual life. Many find reading the Bible, praying and joining with a church enormously helpful to this end.

One staple of the spiritual life is the prayer of gratitude. St. Paul, when instructing his readers on the life of prayer, says: “…in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” Pray about everything, he says, but do so with thanksgiving.

            Another way to become more thankful is to act thankful. Expressing gratitude – even when one does not feel it – can trigger a gratitude response. When a person can’t think himself into a new way of acting he can often act himself into a new way of thinking.

            It turns out that giving thanks is not just a religious duty. It’s good sense.

First published in the Coldwater Daily Reporter, Saturday, November 30, 2013

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