Great and timely words from the American Enterprise Institute’s Arthur Brooks in yesterday’s New York Times. This article hit home for me down to the smallest details. It was quite an endeavor for the newly-married Brooks to find a turkey in Barcelona, Spain to roast in order to give his in-laws a taste of American Thanksgiving. I faced something similar when I was an exchange student at the University of Barcelona ten years ago as I can remember asking my Catalan host family where I could buy canned pumpkin. They chuckled and looked at me like I had four heads. I wanted to make a pumpkin pie for a few native friends who had never heard of it. After finding some pricey chopped pumpkin slices which I had to boil and then puree, I managed to pull it off, making two killer pies using kitchen utensils where I was forced to convert the recipe I had into metric measures.
Food is not the point of Thanksgiving; the active expression of gratitude is. As it turns out, some people exhibit gratefulness much more easily than others:
Some people simply have a heightened genetic tendency to experience, in the researchers’ words, “global relationship satisfaction, perceived partner responsiveness and positive emotions (particularly love).” That is, those relentlessly positive people you know who seem grateful all the time may simply be mutants.
But we are more than slaves to our feelings, circumstances and genes. Evidence suggests that we can actively choose to practice gratitude — and that doing so raises our happiness.This is not just self-improvement hokum.
For example, researchers in one 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 listed hassles or neutral events. Ten weeks later, the first group enjoyed significantly greater life satisfaction than the others. Other studies have shown the same pattern and lead to the same conclusion. If you want a truly happy holiday, choose to keep the “thanks” in Thanksgiving, whether you feel like it or not.
And what do you know, gratitude is also good for your brain. Science bears this out:
If grinning for an uncomfortably long time like a scary lunatic isn’t your cup of tea, try expressing gratitude instead. According to research published in the journal Cerebral Cortex, gratitude stimulates the hypothalamus (a key part of the brain that regulates stress) and the ventral tegmental area (part of our “reward circuitry” that produces the sensation of pleasure).
And once again, the apostle Paul was way ahead of his time with this spiritual counsel: “Give thanks in all circumstances, pray continually for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus (1 Thess 5:18).” When you do not know what God’s will is for your life, giving thanks in whatever circumstances is a good place to start. Conversely, not giving thanks lies at the root of all kinds of debauchery. Writing from Corinth, Paul tells the Romans that although the wicked “knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.” Lack of thankfulness pollutes the soul.
So I will join Arthur Brooks this Thanksgiving in expanding my gratitude list to include not just the usual wonderful things like family, friends, and living in America, but also the little joys like the smell of apple crisp baking in the oven. And I’m thankful for you too, dear reader, for taking the time to read my blog.
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