Giving Thanks

This coming Thursday, the United States celebrates Thanksgiving.  Despite the fraught history of the holiday, I like it because I believe in the importance of giving thanks.

Gratitude is good. It is all too easy to take for granted the good things that we do have and to focus our attention on things that worry us. It is, indeed, quite natural because focusing attention on potential danger is a survival skill: if you’re starving, your attention focuses on finding food, and if you’ve had enough to eat, your attention focuses on other potential threats. Being aware of danger is important, but it also takes a toll on the body in the form of stress. Gratitude, by contrast, focuses the attention on those things that are going well and on things supporting us—on things that are good in our lives, but that can be taken for granted because they are familiar.

The good aspects of the familiar can fade into the background while the rough spots in the familiar move forward in prominence: if one eats the same nutritious food every day, for example, at some point the repetition and monotony get more attention than the good fortune of having nutritious food. Or, for example, good health can become familiar and taken for granted, and is then only appreciated once it has been lost.  A practice of giving thanks can help focus attention on those things that fall into the background of the familiar. I believe that gratitude can help reduce stress, boost emotions, and help us remember our positive opportunities, and I believe that there is empirical evidence for this, though I don’t have any citations to hand.  

For the US, the story traditionally told about Thanksgiving is the story of the Native Americans helping the Pilgrims, and this story opens the difficult and problematic history of how European colonists and their descendants treated the native populations—a relationship that is still fraught today.  Thanksgiving’s association with this difficult history, and the Thanksgiving story which presents the relationship between native and pilgrim as so innocent and pure, are all problematic.  But that history is problematic every day. I don’t believe that appreciating Thanksgiving—a holiday for giving thanks and showing gratitude–a harvest festival—should be prevented by the difficult history of race relations in America. (And I certainly don’t want Thanksgiving to become an excuse to forget that history the rest of the year.) Basically, no history should stop me from giving thanks for what I do have. Indeed, in giving thanks for whatever good I have, I become more sensitive to the plight of those who do not have the same good.

When I am thankful that I have clean air to breathe, then I have greater sympathy for those who do not. When I am thankful I have clean water to drink, I better appreciate the plight of those who don’t.  When I have food to eat, a home in which to live, good health, hope for the future, I have things to be thankful for, and in giving thanks, I have more feeling for those who don’t. I’m thankful for all these things and more—friends, family, teachers, colleagues. I’m thankful for music. I’m thankful for the beauty of trees, leaves, flowers, clouds, the moon, sunrises, sunsets, etc., etc.  There may be a lot of things that I could complain about, but none of those are so dire that they should stop me from appreciating what good I do have—perhaps if my life hangs in the balance, then it might make sense to focus my attention on things other than giving thanks, but as long as my troubles are a little more distance, giving thanks only helps me find a foundation from which I can try to deal with the problems.

Giving thanks is central to most religions that I know of. And harvest festivals or other festivals that celebrate the good things that we have are common.  Religions often have stories like that of Job, where even the person beset by ills, is called upon to show gratitude and appreciation. The religious focus on giving thanks could be seen solely through the perspective of the spiritual relationship with the deity. But if we think about the role religions play in society, we might wonder whether those religious calls to show gratitude are some form of public mental health: worshippers are kept healthier by focusing their attention on the things for which they are grateful. But that is speculation.

In any event, despite the difficult history of race relations in the US, I appreciate Thanksgiving because I like giving thanks.

Thank you to my readers for reading.

I hope that you can find something to be thankful for.

I have categorized this under “practice” because giving thanks is something that can be practiced with benefit.