Now comes Thanksgiving, a time when our citizenry might take its collective breath.
If there are common threads to our America’s national holidays, each celebrates an event of national progress toward freedom and justice, honors a heroic catalyst of such an occasion, or simply embraces a new year, a time of beginning. The one this week is about gratitude.
As we age, we have the power of a longer observation of the human experience. Thanksgiving calls to mind the epiphany that those who possess and practice their gift of gratitude have the greatest power of all of all to open the gates to a personal happiness that, through its contagion, leads to an improved society.
We speak here not of simple thank yous to the waiter for good service, or a circle of prayer around Thursday’s repast, although those are pebble on the good side of the scale. It is bigger than that.
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Psychologists have demonstrated in countless studies that those who experience an inner and constant gratitude to those who have enriched their lives and those who find joy to celebrate among ambiguous surroundings are happier and more productive. Further, they nudge it upward in others to whom they express it genuinely.
The experts differ on whether the gift of gratitude is built into our DNA, just as it seems that some of us are wired up to be doctors and others of us as nurses, or whether it is nurtured. Perhaps it is both. It matters not. What matters is whether one possesses and enhances such gratefulness through a personal belief, a world view that turns into a habit of expressing it.
It has personal and societal implications. Barbara Friedman, Ph.D., who researches and teaches psychology at UNC, compares joyful payoff of gratitude to the prison of fear. We all know those sad souls who never seem to get above a negativity of victimhood that deprives them of this happy gift and never gets past the turkey.
Now, it’s time for us to dig around and search for that inner gratitude that most happy people already possess but have lost.
The benefit of rediscovering thankfulness is spectacular. Friedman’s studies suggest that gratitude generates a contagiously happier person and serves three moral functions: as a moral barometer, motivator, and reinforcer. She writes, “Experiences of gratitude . . . have benefits to personal and social development, to individual health and well-being; and community strength and harmony.” Such happiness from gratitude, then, begets happiness.
And once we get there, powerful arguments can be made that happiness itself is a virtue. The Dali Lama argues that we have no more important calling than to find happiness, because happy people are those who do the most good in the world. And at a time when we need to respect others more, his teaching is, “When you have enough gratitude, there is a sense of respect towards others.”
This gift of gratitude can come in two ways. It is easy to identify and be permanently grateful to those whose influence on our lives contributed to whatever good things that have happened to us that would not have happened otherwise. The other comes from how an individual processes ambiguity. Those who have a habit to see sublime outcomes where others just see obstruction are happier.
An example is offered by a wonderful woman I know who visited a very popular Washington restaurant with two of her friends on a busy night. As they queued to their turn to reach the host, he told them that it would be at least a thirty minute wait. She exuded, “Thank you! That’s thirty more minutes of fun.”
The host walked the ladies through the crowd to the restaurant bartender, telling him within earshot of others that their drinks were on the house, because he said, he was so grateful to them for making his evening a joy. Customers applauded. They, too, were happier in that shared, contagious, moment.
Another friend with a background in the hard reality of business accounting nonetheless stands at gatherings where “Happy Birthday” is sung to all who are celebrating it that day. “Every day,” he says, “is my birthday.” No one complains. Everyone smiles. It is not a naive sentiment of a Pollyanna, but the act of someone who is grateful for life and wants to celebrate it with all.
Gratitude as a belief supported by habit, not just at Thanksgiving, is a joyful gift, where our inner souls collude with outer behaviors in a feedback loop that enriches us and others. As we express it to those to whom we are grateful, it grows like southern kudzu.
There is not much in our lives over which we have complete control, although we wield a powerful influence over it. One thing we can control is what we say, to ourselves and others.
Now, the country will go about sorting out the future of a nation great enough to heal itself if it chooses. And now is a time when those with the gift of gratitude can take time to rediscover it. We do our part to help the country heal by making ourselves better. This requires no sacrifice, no diets, no dissonance or tension of persuading those with whom we disagree.
It is the individual’s gift to oneself who may need a reminder that one’s bundle of gratitude is a holiday gift to be opened whenever one wishes. Then it requires only its exercise.
Jim Heavner, President of VilCom in Chapel Hill, has a long career in journalism and media entrepreneurship.