For the second straight year, we celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday under the pall of the Covid-19 pandemic. We are also confronting supply chain snarls, climate change, rising inflation, global tension, and political bickering. The state of the world might cause some of us to wonder what there is to be thankful for. As it turns out, it is in just these sorts of circumstances that having a thankful heart pays the greatest dividends. Because the Thanksgiving holiday is primarily associated with a plentiful harvest, we underappreciate the role gratitude can play when blessings aren’t so bountiful. Henry Austin, a 17th century English poet, asserted that if we are only thankful when things go right, we are not being thankful, we are being selfish. He wrote:
“Prosperity has left its blessings. The table is laden with plenty. There is meat in the larder and grain in the storehouse. Because of these things, [we] imagine [we] are grateful, but such gratitude is the essence of selfishness. It is dependent upon exterior conditions. It finds its basis in circumstances. It draws its inspiration from clear skies and smooth sailing, and hence it is fitful and evanescent as the alterations of sunlight and shadow. If these conditions of personal comfort and prosperity are in themselves the ground of thankfulness, where in the hour of adversity shall we find the occasion for rejoicing? The record of the past has the graver side. There have been pain and losses and disappointments and bereavements and heartaches. Where in these things is there reason and ground for gratitude? Has the empty larder, the bare table, the desolate home, the vacant chair, the fresh mound in the cemetery, no place for thanksgiving? Ah, here is the point of stumbling with an earnest soul. We find in the bitter chill of adversity the true test of our gratitude and that is true gratitude which triumphing over conditions, merely physical and external, finds its ground of thankfulness in God himself. It is independent of circumstances. It goes beneath the surface of life, whether sad or joyous, and founds itself upon God.”
Regardless of whether you have a belief in God, Austin’s underlying point remains profound. A grateful heart makes life a richer experience, even during dark times. A person with a gratitude attitude has a much better chance of pulling themselves out of adverse situations because they are more resilient. Newspaper editor William John Cameron explained that a grateful person is resilient because they are proactive. He wrote: “Thanksgiving, after all, is a word of action.” President John F. Kennedy echoed that sentiment when he stated, “As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.” Another newspaper editor, Edward Sandford Martin, once wrote, “Thanksgiving Day comes, by statute, once a year; to the honest man it comes as frequently as the heart of gratitude will allow.” In good times and bad, a grateful heart is a wonderful asset.
Happy people seem to have discovered this secret. Friedrich Gottlob Koenig, a 19th-century German inventor best known for his high-speed steam-powered printing press, once noted, “We tend to forget that happiness doesn’t come as a result of getting something we don’t have, but rather of recognizing and appreciating what we do have.” Oprah Winfrey agrees. “Be thankful for what you have,” she stated, “you’ll end up having more. If you concentrate on what you don’t have, you will never, ever have enough.” A few years after the author Joseph Heller (of Catch 22 fame) died, his friend Kurt Vonnegut published a tribute poem about Heller in The New Yorker magazine. It read:
True story, Word of Honor:
Joseph Heller, an important and funny writer
and I were at a party given by a billionaire
on Shelter Island.
I said, “Joe, how does it make you feel
to know that our host only yesterday
may have made more money
than your novel ‘Catch-22’
has earned in its entire history?”
And Joe said, “I’ve got something he can never have.”
And I said, “What on earth could that be, Joe?”
And Joe said, “The knowledge that I’ve got enough.”
Not bad! Rest in peace!”
Harvey B. Simon, M.D., Editor of Harvard Men’s Health Watch, explains, “In positive psychology research, gratitude is strongly and consistently associated with greater happiness. Gratitude helps people feel more positive emotions, relish good experiences, improve their health, deal with adversity, and build strong relationships.” Every person faces adversity in their life. Certainly the Pilgrims and members of the Wampanoag tribe, with whom the Thanksgiving celebration are inextricably linked, faced adversity. No place in America is more connected to that first Thanksgiving celebration than the Plimoth Patuxet Museums (formerly Plimoth Plantation). An article published several years ago by the group stated:
“Despite modern-age turmoil — and perhaps, even more so, because of it — gathering together in grateful appreciation for a Thanksgiving celebration with friends and family is a deeply meaningful and comforting annual ritual to most Americans. The need to connect with loved ones and to express our gratitude is at the heart of all this feasting, prayerful thanks, recreation, and nostalgia for a simpler time. And somewhere in the bustling activity of every November’s Thanksgiving is the abiding National memory of a moment in Plymouth, nearly 400 years ago, when two distinct cultures, on the brink of profound and irrevocable change, shared an autumn feast.”
Like past generations, we also sit on the brink of profound and irrevocable change. Faced with all the challenges noted at the beginning of this article, anxiety is the constant companion of too many people. Having a grateful heart can help reduce that anxiety. Robert A. Emmons (@Dr_RobertEmmons), a professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis, and the world’s leading scientific expert on gratitude, wrote the following during the midst of the Great Recession back in the 2013:
“A decade’s worth of research on gratitude has shown me that when life is going well, gratitude allows us to celebrate and magnify the goodness. But what about when life goes badly? In the midst of the economic maelstrom that has gripped our country, I have often been asked if people can — or even should — feel grateful under such dire circumstances. My response is that not only will a grateful attitude help — it is essential. In fact, it is precisely under crisis conditions when we have the most to gain by a grateful perspective on life. In the face of demoralization, gratitude has the power to energize. In the face of brokenness, gratitude has the power to heal. In the face of despair, gratitude has the power to bring hope. In other words, gratitude can help us cope with hard times.”
The Greek philosopher Epictetus, who was born a slave, wrote, “He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has.” An anonymous author reflected a thought similar to Joseph Heller’s, he wrote, “Gratitude turns what we have into enough.” On this Thanksgiving Day, I hope what you have is enough to make you grateful.