“If the only prayer you said in your whole life was ‘Thank you,’ that would suffice,” German theologian Meister Eckhart said back in the 14th century.
Each year on Thanksgiving Day, whether one chooses to call it a prayer or prefers another word, we Americans pause to say, “Thank you.”
Thanksgiving is one of the few holidays in our American calendar when we don’t exchange presents with people, and yet, it is a holiday based on gifts — the gifts we receive throughout the year. We gather to express our gratitude (from the Latin “gratia:” “grace, pleasing, favorable”) because we realize how much we have been given. We acknowledge the bounty of our gifts even if they don’t measure to the standards the world imposes or that we impose upon ourselves.
To whom or to what we are giving thanks varies from culture to culture. It may be other people, impersonal nature or non-human objects (God, animals, the cosmos), but throughout history the world’s religious thinkers and ethical writers have agreed that humans have a moral imperative to feel and express gratitude for gifts we receive.
An additional aspect of this thanksgiving is the awareness that the gifts are not necessarily deserved or earned.
Scientific evidence suggests that a world view that sees life as a series of gifts makes a person happier, healthier and more satisfied with life. It turns out it becomes a sort of snowball effect: The more you consider reasons to be thankful, the more reasons you will find and the more gifts you will discover. Some studies report that participants in daily gratitude exercises are more likely to help someone with a personal problem or to offer emotional support to someone in need.
A compelling 2003 study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology cites evidence that those who wrote down what they were grateful for each week exercised more, had fewer health complaints and generally felt better about their lives.
Counting one’s blessings and writing them down. Becky told me that her daughter Rachel had read somewhere (Facebook?) about a program called the 30 Days of Gratitude Project that applies this research on writing and thankfulness. The idea behind the project is a simple one: Each day during November write down one thing for which you are grateful. By the end of the month it is likely you will have developed a habit of gratitude.
Rachel took the idea and ran with it. Every evening this November as the family is gathered around the dinner table, the two adults and three of their four children (At nine months, Adelaide is not quite ready to talk.) each tell one thing for which he or she is grateful. Rachel writes them down for review and, I suspect, just because she’s the kind of person who would want to keep such records.
I say this with gentle sympathy, knowing I am the same way.
Becky and I agreed this is a wonderful way to instill the notion of gratitude in our grandchildren. We also agreed it would be a good exercise for grandparents, as well, and so in that spirit the two of us have been making our own Gratitude Lists each night this month. It has been easier and harder than I expected. The Big Things for which I am grateful come easily. It is the small things that I mostly ignore or overlook, the everyday things, that I find I am most pleased to realize what a great gift I have been given.
I’m sure I will want to file away both our lists after Nov. 30.
As I prepare for Thanksgiving Day and all the days after, I hope to carry with me this quote by William A. Ward: “You were given 86,400 seconds today. Have you used one to say, ‘Thank you?’”
Norman Knight, a retired Clark-Pleasant Middle School teacher, writes this weekly column for the Daily Journal. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.