This is the season of gratitude marked by the celebration in America of Thanksgiving Day, the last Thursday in November. According to many scholar/historians, the first Thanksgiving was in 1621 where British Pilgrims had landed sometime before at Cape Cod, the northern tip of the U.S. President Lincoln established Thanksgiving Day as a national holiday in 1863 but it wasn’t until President Franklin Roosevelt set the date permanently, in 1941, as the last Thursday in November.
Over the centuries, the day has lost most of its religious significance and has become centered on traditions of food and family ritual. But I have come across a virtual trove of research on gratitude and its importance in our spiritual and personal psyches. We might do ourselves a favor reflecting on these benefits.
In a research study, Dr. Joel Wong and Dr. Joshua Brown of Indiana University studied the benefits of becoming a grateful person. They write that when we express gratitude our brain releases neurotransmitters called dopamine (which makes us happy) and serotonin (which makes us calm). Three groups of people were randomly selected and divided into three separate assignments. Members of the first group wrote letters of gratitude to people each week for three weeks. The second group kept a journal of all their negative feelings and experiences for three weeks. The third group had no writing assignment at all; they merely went on living their normal lives.
The results were astounding: people in group one used the highest amount of plural words such as ‘we’ or ‘us’. There was a significant lack of negative words in their letters. And though not required to mail the letters, 23% did so but even those who did not send the letters experienced the same level of peace as those who did, indicating that the simple act of expressing gratitude generated positive effects. All three groups were tested through a brain measuring instrument after the experiment and only group one registered high levels of dopamine and serotonin. The testing was done three months after the experiment finding that expressions of gratitude have lasting effects. Group one subjects also reported a greater sensitivity to expressing gratitude, relief from pain and stress, and overall diminishment of depression.
The researchers reported that gratitude “unshackles us from toxic emotions.” They suggest that “people who count their blessings, tend to be the happiest.” Another study concluded that when one gives something of value to another person, one is actually being grateful. We are, unconsciously, grateful to have something to share; we are not expecting anything in return. Gratitude is, thus, two-fold; it is in the act of acknowledging one’s gifts and in the act of sharing those gifts. A prefect recipe for this season of giving!
In short, gratitude makes us better people. Better people of faith and love. Perhaps that’s why the Salvation Army puts its Santas at the corner store or why we contribute time distributing food during the holidays. We give because we are grateful.
The Book of Psalms in the Hebrew Scriptures are full of references to and prayers of gratitude. You might want to lift your heart in prayer through Psalms 92 and 100 for starters. In the Christian Scriptures there are also many references to gratitude but probably none so apt as Luke’s story of the Ten Lepers. (Luke 17:11-19)
Saint Ignatius Loyola made gratitude the foundation of his spirituality, still very popular today. Upon his emergence from the cave at Manresa where he purged himself of his sinful past, he came to a clarity and joy of life that he could only express in gratitude. He suddenly realized that God loved him unconditionally and that in the mess of life, he could see God and know God. This became the foundation of the spirituality he developed in The Spiritual Exercises.
Take some time to reflect on these readings and if you can find some of Ignatius’s writings on gratitude, do so. But most of all, remember that you’ll be a happier person the more you express gratitude. Make everyday a Thanksgiving Day. I wish all my readers and wonderful Anonymous Angels a very Happy Thanksgiving!!!