Thanksgiving hovers on the horizon inviting us to reflect on the importance of giving thanks to God for our multitude of blessings. It may seem incongruous in this year of so many challenges. What do we have to be thankful for? We’ve faced the illness and death of loved ones, coronavirus lockdowns, cancelled religious services and locked churches, isolation, and unemployment, not to mention wildfires in California, riots ripping apart our cities, and devastating hurricanes with massive flooding on the Gulf Coast. The litany of woes seems endless.
And yet, in 1 Thessalonians 5:18, St. Paul tells us, “In all things give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you all.” What a message to receive only days after a presidential election that may turn out to be a disaster for the unborn, the vulnerable, and people of faith. Many discouraged voters ask, “Why?” even as they await the final result. But our response should be to turn to God and thank Him no matter what happens, because He promises to “work all things (all things) together for good to those who love Him and serve according to His purpose.” Can fraud and corruption defeat God? Of course not!
King David’s psalms overflow with messages of thanks. “Let us come before his presence with thanksgiving; and make a joyful noise to him with psalms.” (Psalm 95:2) “Enter His gates with thanksgiving, And His courts with praise. Give thanks to Him; bless His name.” (Psalm 100:4) “Praise the LORD! Oh give thanks to the LORD, for He is good; For His loving kindness is everlasting.” (Psalm 106:1)
Even the weeping prophet, Jeremiah, called on the people to give thanks in the midst of their suffering under the boot of a pagan empire. He reminded them that God is still in charge and they would not suffer forever. “And out of them shall proceed thanksgiving and the voice of them that make merry: and I will multiply them, and they shall not be few; I will also glorify them, and they shall not be small.” (Jeremiah 30:19)
Cicero called gratitude the greatest of all the virtues and the parent of them all. No day passes without a long list for which to be thankful. From the moment we wake up and put our feet on the floor and hear the birdsong symphony outside our windows until we lay our heads on the pillow at night after gazing at a glorious sunset and a clear blue-black sky glittering with stars, we have multiple reasons to give thanks.
Gratitude offers benefits, not only for the soul, but it’s healthy for the body as well. Researcher Giacomo Bono focuses on the impact of gratitude, particularly in young people. In a four-year study of 700 students ages 10-14, researchers compared the 20 percent “least grateful” with the 20 percent “most grateful.” Grateful students were happier, more hopeful, found more meaning in their lives and experienced fewer negative emotions and depressive symptoms.
Bono summarized the findings, saying they “suggest that gratitude may be strongly linked with life-skills such as cooperation, purpose, creativity and persistence and, as such, gratitude is vital resource that parents, teachers and others who work with young people should help youth build up as they grow up. … More gratitude may be precisely what our society needs to raise a generation that is ready to make a difference in the world.”
Bono’s research led him to develop a classroom gratitude curriculum for students. The Greater Gratitude Science Center offers two programs, one with 30 activities for K-8th grade and one offering four classes for older students who are encouraged to keep a gratitude journal and to make a thankful attitude “intentional.” One lesson plan focuses on seeing the good in others pointing out that:
You can spend all of your time and energy thinking about all the things that go wrong in life, looking at people’s negative characteristics, and doing things to feel better about yourself at the expense of others. – Or you can choose to appreciate all the good things that you have in your life, recognize people’s positive characteristics, and do things that make others feel better about themselves.
The program uses a “fill the bucket” metaphor urging students to affirm the goodness they see in others in specific ways. Did a friend tell you a joke that lifted your spirits? Say thank you. Did you drop your books and someone you hardly know helped pick them up? Acknowledge their kindness. Fill their buckets with affirmation. By “filling the buckets” of others, you fill your own.
That an attitude of gratitude makes positive changes in a person’s life seems like common sense, but it’s also confirmed by scientific studies. Bono compared the results of the full gratitude curriculum with classroom instruction and activities with a control group using only a web gratitude app called GiveThx. At the end of six weeks, students took a “well-being survey.”
Researchers found that the students who took the full curriculum showed advances over the control group in a number of measures, including emotion regulation, motivation to succeed, improved relations with teachers and their peer group, and a greater sense of the meaning of life. Parents who want to assist their own children would benefit from studying the results of Bono’s research.
Gratitude is itself a tremendous blessing for which to be grateful. A grateful heart is a healthier heart, both physically and spiritually. While Bono’s program says nothing about God, promoting natural virtue and ethics echoes God’s presence. Grace builds on nature, and gratitude for the beauty we see around us and for the people in our lives can easily lead to gratitude for the author of beauty and life itself.
May we magnify gratitude by making it not only a virtue for a season, but for a lifetime. As Catholics, we have a virtual feast of models who teach us to be grateful every day. St. Teresa of Avila offers us this gem, “In all created things discern the providence and wisdom of God, and in all things give Him thanks.” Amen!