Not Thankful at Thanksgiving?

Attacks by ISIS in diverse places, hate-filled political agendas at home, thousands upon thousands of refugees fleeing from war torn countries, hunger, poverty — and yet right here at home, despite homelessness and way too many people in need, shopping and planning for the Big Meal continues, and gratitude somehow abounds. And in the midst of all the bad news in Sunday’s 11/22/15 New York Times, this article catches my eye: Choose to Be Grateful. It Will Make You Happier by Arthur C. Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute and contributing opinion writer.

Brooks looks back at his own wedding 24 years ago and remembers preparing a complete Thanksgiving meal for his new Spanish in-laws in Barcelona where Thanksgiving is not celebrated and turkeys are not commonly served on a holiday. Over dinner, his new family had many questions about the odd American tradition, but one philosophical question stood out: “Should you celebrate this holiday even if you don’t feel grateful?”

The question itself could be fodder for a family discussion on Thanksgiving Day, but then again it could end in some sort of meal-killing conflict among those who would celebrate or would not celebrate despite their level of gratitude. Interestingly, there is evidence to suggest that acting grateful can actually make you feel more grateful. Researchers in a 2003 study randomly assigned one group of study participants to keep a short weekly list of the things they were grateful for, while other groups made note of hassles or neutral events they experienced. Ten weeks later the first group demonstrated significantly greater life satisfaction than the others. Other studies led to the same conclusion. It turns out that we can actively choose to practice being grateful, and that in so doing our perceived level of happiness increases. Many of us can clearly remember a time when Oprah Winfrey spent a lot of her television show time recommending to her viewers that they keep a “gratitude journal” to increase their own perceived level of happiness. She was on to something.

I am deeply/hugely grateful to have been raised by an extremely positive, loving mother who must have figured into the interesting study Brooks cites in a 2014 article in the Journal of Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience. A particular gene, identified only as “CD38”, was discovered to have a strong association with gratitude in “relentlessly positive people who seem to be grateful all the time.” They tend to have “a global relationship with satisfaction, perceived partner responsiveness, and positive emotions (particularly love).”

This was my mother. It wasn’t as if nothing bad ever happened to her, God knows, but she loved her way through circumstances and people and throughout her 85 years. She was a musician, teacher, hilarious storyteller, and the most compassionate person I’ve ever known. To an almost irritating degree she stood up for the other guy and made me put myself in his shoes much more than I ever wanted to, but still. . .

When I was about five years old, I developed a terrible fear of germs. I couldn’t stand the thought that there were these invisible “bugs” in the world that could infect me with polio or TB or something worse. My mom tried to talk me out of it, but was unsuccessful for a few years. When I started having nightmares about them, she would come into my room to comfort me in some way. One night when I couldn’t go back to sleep, she suggested that I start counting all the things I loved in my life starting with my favorite stuffed bear, followed by the merry-go-round at the nearby park. That was the very first time in my life I actually fell asleep counting my blessings and certainly was not the last. I found out that it worked!

So, not thankful at Thanksgiving? Not a problem for me, thanks to my mother in large part, and much later in life, my own spirituality.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Next: The Interview

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