Now thank we all our God with hearts and hands and voices, who wondrous things hath done, in whom His world rejoices; who from our mothers’ arms hath blessed us on our way with countless gifts of love, and still is ours today. —Martin Rinkart, 1586-1649
Gratitude is an interesting concept; expressing it even more so – especially if you look at it across different cultures.
In the West we tend toward over-politeness almost to a fault. It’s how we are raised, with “please” and “thank you” among the first words we are taught. Other cultures almost shun verbal expressions as artificial; gratitude is better shown through actions, such as gift-giving … which must then be reciprocated if one is to avoid offending the giver!
Our Western culture is also a highly intellectual one: we will study anything. Anything! Even gratitude. And then publish our findings. And that is just what Robert A. Emmons, PhD, did. The result is his book, Thanks: How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2007).
Emmons identifies two keys to gratitude: recognizing and acknowledging. “First,” he writes, “gratitude is the acknowledgment of goodness in one’s life. … Second, gratitude is recognizing that the source(s) of this goodness lie at least partially outside the self. The object of gratitude is other-directed; …to other people, to God, to animals, but never to oneself.”
I guess some of us just need more help then others. Like me. Especially today.
Thanksgiving—the holiday, not the act—is hard. I’m supposed to give thanks; that’s sort of the point. But feeling grateful isn’t an on-demand emotion. Or is it? Of the 70 times in the Bible the words “give thanks” appear, roughly half suggest an obligation or even a command. “Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good.”
Maybe what makes Thanksgiving hard isn’t my lack of gratitude, but our culture’s tendency toward over-politeness: we say thanks more because we’re supposed to than because we feel thankful – like when we opened that sweater from Grandma last Christmas!
Maybe Thanksgiving is hard because the words of thankfulness are sandwiched between over-filled dinner plates and Black Friday sales. (Like the internet meme I saw recently that said something like, “Only in America can we give thanks on Thursday for all we have, then wake up at 4:00am on Friday to buy more.“)
But maybe Emmons’ research can help me today when I gather with family around an abundant feast. I can acknowledge the abundance of goodness in my life—and on my plate—and recognize that the goodness didn’t come from me. (Well, except for the mashed potatoes.)
And I’ll give thanks. From the bottom of my heart.
(Psalm 136 is a good example of this acknowledge-and-recognize type of gratitude. Here’s a blog I wrote about that last year.)