As we begin Thanksgiving week, this story seems appropriate: a Harvard Medical School professor has identified gratitude as vital to happiness.
Sanjiv Chopra has studied those who win the lottery, concluding that at the end of the year, they’re back to their “baseline” happiness and “some are less happy.” He explains that hedonic adaptation causes us to grow accustomed to what we win or otherwise possess, so it becomes familiar and loses its ability to make us happy.
What, then, makes us happiest? Finding a purpose in life that leads to flourishing, giving to others, and expressing gratitude. Chopra cites research showing that “if you express gratitude on a regular basis, you’ll be happy, you’ll be more creative, you’ll be more fulfilled—you might even live ten years longer.” In fact, research shows that you can increase your happiness 25 percent by the regular practice of expressing gratitude.
Such thanksgiving need not be religious, according to the Washington Post. The act of “saying grace” over a meal or otherwise feeling grateful brings benefits on its own, we’re told.
But there’s a flaw in this reasoning that we need to remedy in order to experience the true power of gratitude today.
A grandmother’s accidental invitation
President Biden pardoned two turkeys on Friday, continuing a long-standing presidential tradition. As the New York Times noted, Peanut Butter and Jelly will be “boosted, not basted,” living out their natural lives at Purdue University.
If these turkeys could express thanksgiving for their pardons, should they be generically grateful? Or shouldn’t they be grateful to those who spared them from someone’s dinner table?
Wanda Dench sent a text inviting her grandson for Thanksgiving dinner. However, he had changed his phone number and the text went to a student named Jamal Hinton instead. He notified her of the mistake, but she ended up inviting him anyway. Six years later, the two are continuing the tradition.
Should Jamal be generically grateful for Wanda’s generosity? Or shouldn’t he express his thanks to and for her?
As our society continues its post-Christian slide into secularism, holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas have become secularized as well. One can go the entire Christmas season without seeing a mention of Christ’s birth in secular culture; Thanksgiving has become far less about gratitude to God and far more about football and feasting.
Thus we should not be surprised when even gratitude becomes generically secularized. But we should not overlook the illogic of this trajectory nor the power of thanksgiving when it is properly directed.
The source of your next breath
“Thanksgiving” is obviously the combination of “giving” and “thanks.” A gift requires a recipient; otherwise, it remains unopened. Thus, by definition, thanksgiving should be given to someone. It is less a feeling than an action prompted by another action we have received.
The holiday we call Thanksgiving is not just intentional but vertical. We are told by Scripture to “give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thessalonians 5:18). As a result, Thanksgiving reminds us that we are creatures of a Creator, finite and fallen beings whose very lives are not fully our own (cf. Genesis 3:16–19).
From a Baltimore woman who was murdered inside her church, to a former NFL player who died of ALS at the age of fifty-seven, to a pregnant woman and her unborn child who were gunned down after she left her baby shower, to the mounting death toll from fentanyl, to the rising death toll from COVID-19 (2021 US pandemic deaths have now passed 2020 fatalities), every day reminds us of our mortality. John F. Kennedy was assassinated on this day in 1963; on the same day, famed apologist C. S. Lewis died.
Every day we live is a day for which we should give thanks to the God of life (John 10:10).
Your next breath comes from his providential provision. Your capacities were given by his creative grace. Did I earn the right to be born in America rather than North Korea? To have loving parents who encouraged me rather than brutal parents who abused me?
Think back over the key moments that have most shaped your life. How many of them were the sole product of your autonomous achievement? How many were opportunities provided by God and others in grace?
How “life becomes rich”
True thanksgiving not only positions us appropriately as creatures rather than the Creator—it also empowers our relationship with our Creator. We “enter his gates with thanksgiving” (Psalm 100:4). Gratitude for his grace positions us in worship and prayer to experience his presence and love. The more time we spend in thanksgiving to our Father, the more his Spirit can transform us into his best for our lives and cultural impact.
So, let’s eschew the generic gratitude that pervades our secular culture during the Thanksgiving season. Let’s spend time each day giving thanks to God intentionally and sincerely for specific gifts he has given to us. Let’s see each moment as his provision, each day as his gift. And let’s enter his gates with thanksgiving that we might experience his empowering presence.
If we do, we will learn the truth of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s observation, “It is only with gratitude that life becomes rich!”
How rich will you be today?