As people across the country prepare to celebrate Thanksgiving, a Doris Day quote comes to mind: “Gratitude is riches and complaint is poverty.”
She was right, and this week especially, each of us should take a moment to consider the unique history of this quintessential American holiday, what science says about gratitude and how celebrating Thanksgiving can improve your life.
Thanksgiving has its roots before the Revolutionary War, of course, but it wasn’t until George Washington’s 1789 proclamation that the holiday officially became a national celebration. As with so many things, Washington set our new republic on a solid course by encouraging all Americans to unite in setting Nov. 26 aside to render “sincere and humble thanks” to God “for his kind care and protection of the People of this Country.”
Most subsequent presidents dropped the ball on Thanksgiving, especially Thomas Jefferson, who thought it was a violation of the separation of church and state. Indeed, the holiday was largely forgotten until Abraham Lincoln revived the tradition in 1862, setting it as the fourth Thursday in November from that time forward.
When Franklin Delano Roosevelt—whose four terms in the White House reflected his fondness for breaking tradition—tried to change the date to prolong the Christmas shopping season, Congress stepped in and set Thanksgiving as the fourth Thursday in November by law in 1941.
Thanksgiving, in other words, is like America: It has faced many challenges, but endured through each of them. And that’s a good thing. Researchers at the John Templeton Foundation have uncovered that “in general, more grateful people are happier, more satisfied with their lives, less materialistic, and less likely to suffer form burnout.” Other studies show that more grateful heart patients report better sleep, less fatigue and less inflammation.
Grateful people were not only happier and healthier themselves, they also positively influenced others through higher levels of generosity, kindness and helpfulness. Giving thanks improves relationships and can even make our homes, our workplaces, and perhaps even our country better places to live.
Giving thanks is easier said than done, however, especially in a world where “anger has come to characterize our polarized political environment,” as scholar Patrick Garry has noted. But despite all that there is to be angry about—from crime and inflation to war and wokeness—conservatives especially can’t give up on Thanksgiving. Gratitude is the heart of conservatism, and in the long run, it may even prove to be the virtue that “helps sand off the edges of anger toward those we disagree with” and unite us a country again, as conservative writer Pete Wehner has suggested.
This Thanksgiving, then, how can you best use your holiday? For starters, you might consider avoiding politics altogether. Politics, which increasingly resembles a contact sport, rarely brings families together and it is hopefully not the most important thing in your life.
But what is? This Thanksgiving, perhaps, consider reflecting on the four basic things that the wisdom of the Scriptures, Aristotle and modern social science all indicate lead to human happiness: family, friends, work and religion. Why not focus conversations on these topics, deeply connecting with friends and family?
One tried and true way to do that is to count your blessings, literally. It is nearly impossible to make a list of all the things you are thankful for, but it is a great exercise and you’ll end up feeling much better than you did before. While you can certainly do this individually, you might also suggest that everyone around the Thanksgiving table voice what they’re grateful for.
If they’re hesitant to share, consider reminding them: “Gratitude is riches and complaint is poverty.”
This piece originally appeared in MSN on 11/21/2023