Thursday, November 24, 2011
“I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought, and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.”
During this Thanksgiving week, it is customary to reflect on, and offer thanks for, our many blessings. Recent research suggests that doing so is also a vital way to enhance our health and happiness.
Gratitude has long been recognized as a virtue, and even acknowledged as a duty. The ancient historian Cicero asserted that gratitude “is not only the greatest of the virtues but the parent of all others.” Both the Old and New Testaments encourage, even command one to give thanks “without ceasing” and “in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you” and to be “overflowing with thankfulness.”
So essential to spiritual life is thankfulness that Martin Luther described gratitude as “the basic Christian attitude” and the great Puritan theologian and preacher Jonathan Edwards argued that a spirit of thankfulness and gratitude to God was an indicator of one’s spiritual state. And moral philosopher Adam Smith devoted extensive space in “A Theory of Moral Sentiments” to exploring the moral claims of gratitude, and their consequences, as being fundamental to a well-ordered society.
Indeed, our celebration of this week’s holiday is itself a demonstration of our intuitive sense of the duty of gratitude, even in the midst of difficulty. It is well known that the Massachusetts Pilgrims’ original harvest celebration was held in the midst of disease, death, and deprivation. And the proclamation of this commemoration as a National Holiday took place in the midst of Civil War in 1863 – both periods of American history marked by extraordinary suffering.
It may be counted another blessing that the duty and virtue of gratitude comes with its own rewards. One of the delightful contributions of recent research in positive psychology is the compilation of empirical evidence to further confirm what has long been known by intuition and experience: the act of thanksgiving brings joy and health.
Consider just a few recent findings: Gratitude and expressions of thankfulness have been found to lower stress, improve one’s immune system, enhance cardiovascular function, increase energy levels, reduce the likelihood of depression, and even improve one’s sleep.
Moreover, those who cultivate habits of thankfulness have stronger relationships, report higher levels of happiness and a clearer sense of life purpose, demonstrate greater levels of altruism, and demonstrate more positive coping strategies in confronting both transitions and difficult situations. Gratitude, it seems, is good for our health, as well as our soul.
Of course, thankfulness is not an instrument to be used to secure physiological benefits; reduced to a tool, it may fail in that function. Rather, the habitual practice of thankfulness affirms a proper orientation towards the Source of our blessings, and enables one to better receive, recognize, and delight in the many gifts and graces of this life.
Adam Smith, “The Theory of Moral Sentiments,” Trinity Forum Reading, 2009.
G.K. Chesterton, “The Strangest Story in the World,” Trinity Forum Reading, 2009.
Isak Dinesen, “Babette’s Feast,” Trinity Forum Reading, 2010.
Victor Hugo, “The Purchase of a Soul,” Trinity Forum Reading, 1995.
Steering Through Chaos, Trinity Forum Curriculum, 2000.