As you are aware, Thanksgiving is soon upon us. This means a lot of different things at different times. It involves planning for obscene amounts of food and copious amounts of football-watching. It means deciding on whether or not to endure the crowds at the mall (I recommend not to). It may mean digging out the Christmas decorations. Finally, for many of us, it means to pause and give thanks for what we have.
But this isn't always easy and I'm going to tell you why. Our brains are hard-wired to look for danger. Imagine Zog and Zeke are cave-persons living thousands of years ago. They look outside and see a fuzzy shape. Zog asks, "Is that a bear or a blueberry bush?" Zeke replies, "I don't know, looks kinda like a bear to me." Zog, being the more adventurous dashes off. A few hours later, he returns, belly full, proclaiming, "Those were the best blueberries ever. You really missed out." Zeke goes to bed that night hungry, wishing he had some blueberries. Imagine this scenario playing out dozens of times. But one night, Zog never returns. Zeke checks out his corner of the cave and he's not there. Zeke gathers up Zog's stuff and takes his mate. The moral of the story is: it's better to miss lunch than to be lunch. Zeke and his new mate produced several offspring and their genes survived, being passed down to us.
Since we rarely have to worry about life-and-death in our culture, our brains still revert back to what they're designed to do, so we look for other forms of "danger." Think for a moment about all the things you're worried about. How long will this winter last? How high will the heating bill be? Will my favorite team win another game this year or do they really stink as bad as they looked last week? Are we ever going to get out of these wars? How many of our brothers and sisters will go hungry and/or cold this winter? Can I even do anything about it?
All this worrying, which in ages past kept us alive, now robs us of life's joy. The bad news is that it is very difficult to worry and at the same time be grateful. That's also the good news. There is an emerging field in my profession called Positive Psychology. Although it is "new," those of us who know Scripture know that the benefits of being thankful go back thousands of years. Positive psychology focuses on helping people develop skills to actually be happy.
We're going to spend the next few minutes examining how being thankful – actually engaging in the act and attitude of gratefulness – is good for us. In fact, if there is a key to happiness, the way to turn that key is by actively being thankful. Let me repeat that. We turn the key to happiness by being thankful.
So what are the emotional benefits of being thankful? Thankfully (yes I use that word on purpose), there are many. Being thankful puts a person into a positive frame of mind. Remember what we saw earlier – it is very difficult, if not impossible, to actively be thankful while at the same time being unhappy. People in positive mind-frames are more productive, more creative, easier to get along with, and tend to have more satisfying relationships. They're healthier, especially taking into account diseases caused or made worse by stress, such as high blood pressure, ulcers, and heart problems. An interesting paradox is that although our problems might cause us to worry, we will solve them more effectively if we approach them with a positive mind-set.
Lynn Johnson, Ph.D., is a psychologist who has proposed the following exercise in his workbook The Healing Power of Gratitude (Johnson, 2006). He suggests that there are very few problems, tragedies, or misfortunes that are not a mixed blessing. For example, you've heard the adage, "I felt sorry for myself because I didn't have any shoes until I met a person who had no feet." Even the absence of something we need can provide an opportunity to be thankful. Dr. Johnson suggests that we examine something that is wrong in our lives and try to find the blessing within it. Many of you know that we went through a couple of pretty lean years in our practice, even though we were working very hard. Now, we've built up a relatively consistent case-load, which can cause Dr. Paul to get tired and, if you ask his wife, irritable. When I reflect on this "problem," I immediately become thankful that I have this problem instead of the one we had a couple of years ago when I wasn't sure how we'd be able to pay our bills. As my dad says, "That's a good problem to have."
Another cool thing about how our brains work is captured in this exercise I'll lead you through. Take a look around the room and make a mental list of everything you see that's blue. Now, close your eyes and try to identify everything you saw that was green. When I do this exercise in my office, I often get the response, "Dr. Paul, you cheated." Yes, I did. The moral of this exercise is that our brains are very good at looking for what we expect to see. Remember our cave-dwelling ancestors. If they expected to see a bear, even when there weren't any around, their hyper-vigilance kept them alive to pass their genes along to us.
To take this a step further, let's say that the blue things represent what's bad and the green represent what's good. If we focus on one or the other, it doesn't make either of them go away. BUT, we tend to feel better if we focus on what's good and for that we can give thanks. One way to help us dwell on what is noble is by keeping a gratitude journal. We're passing out one to get you started. There are some studies that report that doing it 3 times/day is beneficial, while others say that doing it once a week keeps it from being too rote of an exercise. Either way, it's very important to be specific and get into the emotions of what you're thankful for. If you list your kids, then really dwell on the joy they bring into your life and into the world. I'm thankful for our church gardeners. It makes me proud to be associated with a group of people who not only give lip service to providing for the poor, but who actually get their hands dirty doing it. That, brothers and sisters, is joyful. Announcing in church how many pounds of food they delivered to the Food Bank is an example of verbally expressing gratitude, both for the toil they put in and the bounty provided by God.
Another amazing ability humans have is the ability to assign meaning to things and events. You often hear that the difference between optimism and pessimism is whether you look at the glass half full or half empty. I'm going to offer you another option. If your glass was previously empty, and now it's half full, there's reason to give thanks. If your glass was previously full, but you were thirsty and you drank half of it, there's reason to give thanks. I'll argue that the action of giving thanks is what makes it positive, not on the level of your favorite refreshment in the glass.
I believe that this ability to create meaning in life is another thing to be grateful for. Victor Frankl was a Viennese neurologist and psychiatrist who was Jewish. He wrote the best-seller, Man's Search for Meaning. He and his entire family were sent to concentration camps during WW II. He and another man had devised a plan to escape, but since he was the camp's doctor, he decided to make one last round. He visited a man who was clearly not long for this world. The man, knowing of the escape plan, said to Frankl, "So you're getting out, too." Victor decided to stay in the camp and serve his fellow prisoners. He learned and taught us that even unimaginable suffering can be survived if there is meaning to life. Perhaps the most important reason to be thankful.
So, before you sit down to gorge yourself on your favorite Thanksgiving meal, be thankful! Remember, it turns the key to happiness! Happy Thanksgiving!