Dark times call for the light of ‘thanks-living’

For a lot of Americans, it’s an understandable struggle this year to be thankful and celebrate Thanksgiving.

The American dream has felt a bit like a nightmare for too many:

I’m a firm believer that breakthroughs often come through brainpower and perseverance. But I’ve learned another lesson the hard way and by helping others: Breakthrough can also come through brokenness—our times of trouble, trial and even tragedy. And there’s no better proof for that than at Thanksgiving time and in particular reflection of what the Pilgrims originally endured.

A few years ago, USA Today reported on a multiple-university study on the power of gratitude. The researchers discovered that gratefulness really is medicine for the soul. It can make you both healthier and happier.

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The researchers found that those who practiced a thankful attitude lifted their moods, felt less stress and depression, felt less hostile, had lower blood pressure and had lower risks of several disorders, including phobias, bulimia and addictions to alcohol, nicotine and even food.

Gratefulness even can help us stop binging and mood eating over the holidays. And with studies showing that the average American gains seven pounds between Thanksgiving and Christmas, that’s great news about which we all can be thankful!

As Dr. Chris Peterson, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, said, “Gratitude may not get people a new job or replenish their retirement accounts, but it can give them the energy they need to tackle their challenges.”

Maybe the greatest reward of gratefulness is that it can help us overcome negativity and what I call “stinkin’ thinkin’.” Researchers have repeatedly proven that we are “hardwired for negativity.” They debate why that is, but they all agree: We are bent and bias toward the negative. Proof of that comes when we consider how much easier it is to be critical and judgmental vs. being thankful and encouraging. Right? To me, it’s all proof that we all are infected and feeling the consequences of our sin nature.

How does being grateful break barriers of brokenness and “badness” in our lives?

Dr. Robert Emmons, professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis, explained: “When you express a feeling, you amplify it. When you express anger, you get angrier; when you express gratitude, you become more grateful.”

By nature, we easily notice what we don’t have or are missing. But just as with physical exercise, when we flex or push ourselves beyond our mental ability, we grow stronger inside.

Dr. Emmons put it this way: Practicing gratitude in these systematic ways changes people by changing brains that “are wired for negativity, for noticing gaps and omissions.”

These gratitude studies scientifically proved what most of us have known for a long time: When we are grateful for what we have, what we don’t have seems to have less and less of a stronghold in our hearts and minds. In short, grateful people don’t focus so much on their problems and pain.

Here are some ideas for working out your gratitude muscles in good times and tough ones:

  • Practice gratitude each day by finding and stating something you’re grateful for.
  • Write a note of thanks to someone.
  • Keep a gratitude journal in which you write things you’re thankful for.
  • Participate in a Thanksgiving church service in which people are publicly giving thanks to God and others.
  • Use Thanksgiving as a time to initiate weekly times of sharing when you and loved ones share what you’re thankful for.

Harvard Health Publishing explained, “Another leading researcher in this field, Dr. Martin E. P. Seligman, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, tested the impact of various positive psychology interventions on 411 people, each compared with a control assignment of writing about early memories. When their week’s assignment was to write and personally deliver a letter of gratitude to someone who had never been properly thanked for his or her kindness, participants immediately exhibited a huge increase in happiness scores. This impact was greater than that from any other intervention, with benefits lasting for a month.”

Please don’t misunderstand. These researchers in these studies are not trying to minimize or look glibly upon human difficulty or even tragedy – and they’re definitely not saying that being thankful is easy in tough times. The point is that there’s a way to overcome through them – to discover breakthrough through brokenness, that the tunnel of darkness can end in the light of thanks-living.

Helen Keller demonstrated that way forward despite the fact that she was blind and deaf when she said, “So much has been given to me I have no time to ponder over that which has been denied.”

Dare I say that if people such as Helen can do it, there is definite hope for all of us to see that we are more blessed than not.

In an essay adapted from his new book, “Gratitude Works!: A 21-Day Program for Creating Emotional Prosperity,” Dr. Emmons noted: “But being grateful is a choice, a prevailing attitude that endures and is relatively immune to the gains and losses that flow in and out of our lives. When disaster strikes, gratitude provides a perspective from which we can view life in its entirety and not be overwhelmed by temporary circumstances. Yes, this perspective is hard to achieve – but my research says it is worth the effort.”

There’s no greater example of gratitude in the grit and grind of life than that of the Pilgrims, who landed at Plymouth Rock in Massachusetts in 1620. Though they came to a new land, they were by no means foreigners to the territory of pain and difficulty. In fact, there was very little, if anything, easy about their lives. Remember that half of them died the first year they were in the New World.

Ron Lee Davis said in his Thanksgiving sermon titled “Rejoicing in Our Suffering“: “The Pilgrims would not fully understand in their lifetime the reason for the suffering that beset them. The first official Thanksgiving Day occurred as a unique holy day in 1621 – in the fall of that year with lingering memories of the difficult, terrible winter they had just been through a few months before, in which scores and scores of babies and children and young people and adults had starved to death, and many of the Pilgrims had gotten to a point where they were even ready to go back to England. They had climbed into a ship and were in that harbor heading back to England, ready to give up. It was only as they saw another ship coming the other way, and on that ship there was a Frenchman named Delaware, and he came with some medical supplies and some food, that they had enough hope to go back and to try to live in the midst of those adverse sufferings. And yet they came to that first Thanksgiving with the spirit of giving and of sharing.”

Four hundred years later, there’s no doubt that thanksgiving (and thanks-living) is still born in times of adversity. So, perhaps for many of us who are presently experiencing hardships and hard times, Thanksgiving Day will mean even more this year than it has in the past.

It’s no coincidence that God commands and prescribes giving thanks in 1 Thessalonians 5:18 in the Bible: “give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” It doesn’t say give thanks FOR everything, but IN everything. Even in the darkest of times, there are things for which we can give thanks. And according to God, it is the key and remedy to escaping the pits and dark tunnels of this life.

God knew far in advanced of researchers today that giving thanks was the best way to overcome dark times and especially how we are hardwired for negativity. Criticism is easy. Giving thanks is a tough spiritual discipline, but “this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”

Struggling to know God’s will? Start to understand it by doing this: Give thanks IN everything.

Thanksgiving was not meant to be bottled up in a single day. So, let’s spread out thanks-living through each week of the calendar year and our attitude of gratitude to every part of our being: mind, body and soul. If you do, I guarantee you! You’ll be happier.

From my wife, Gena, and I to you and your loved ones: Have a thank(tank)-full and happy Thanksgiving!

(For more about how thanks-living can make you happier, I highly recommend Christian author Randy Alcorn’s blog and his phenomenal book on “Happiness,” which is half-off right now at his website store at epm.org)


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