Thanksgiving: The science of joy

Photo: Alexander Raths/Shutterstock

Did you know that practicing gratitude can make you more physically and psychologically resilient and improve your relationships? It can make you live longer, think more clearly, sleep better, and forgive more readily (see In short, counting blessings and looking for the good in every circumstance brings more life, more vitality, and more joy into — well, everything. If that weren’t enough reason to practice gratitude, modern science asserts that the mere act of celebrating refreshes the mind and boosts creativity! 

More to the point, it is God’s gracious and loving will for us to be resilient, happy, and overflowing with love and mercy, to celebrate our milestones and traditions, to rejoice in all that is good, and to enter the house of the Lord with thanksgiving and praise. 

Isn’t it funny how science is always catching up with God? St. Paul taught: 

Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. In all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus. (1 Thessalonians 5:16–18) 

And this from a man who was stoned, shipwrecked, imprisoned, slandered, and finally beheaded. And he knew it was coming.

Still, I’m no Pollyanna. Like many of us, life has left its scars on my psyche. But even on my worst days, blessings shine out to me like the eyes of a loved one in the darkness, reminding me that I am truly, completely, and faithfully loved by God. Counting ordinary blessings is a consoling and childlike way to enter into God’s presence and invite him into the sanctuary of our hearts throughout the day.

Counting ordinary blessings is a consoling and childlike way to enter into God’s presence.

Some people I know carry epic, seemingly unbearable crosses, the kind that knock you flat and threaten to wipe out every remnant of faith. A woman I met last year lost not one, but two young adult children within a year of each other. Yet this inspiring soul spreads joy and confident faith to thousands of people every week via social media. She is grateful for her life and for the people God calls her to encourage in his name.

Another acquaintance nearly committed suicide 20 years ago, but was stopped by the sound of her mother’s voice on the phone saying, “I’m on my way.” She can’t stop thanking God for the transformation he has wrought since then and continues to bring to her life. The blessings just keep rolling in, and she counts them like a little girl on Christmas morning.

The habit of gratitude is powerful, and it’s relatively easy once you get the hang of it. It’s like a botanist stalking precious herbs in the gloom of a forest. Anyone else might pass by the riches hidden in the natural world, but the well-practiced eye is attracted to the seemingly ordinary flower, leaf, or root and will rejoice at its discovery. 

The habit of gratitude is powerful.

When my daughter was a little girl, we had several Veggie Tales videos (on VHS!), and one of our favorites was Madame Blueberry. In this sweet, animated tale, Madame is the owner of a fabulous treehouse, where she is waited on hand and foot by servants. A superficial and self-centered creature with insatiable material desires, Madame Blueberry goes on a mad buying spree she regrets too late, and the weight of all her belongings topples her marvelous home right into the river. She learns a grace-filled lesson the hard way: It is not possessions that make us happy, but a thankful heart. I will never forget the lilting prayer sung by the children in the story:

… a thankful heart is a happy heart!
I’m glad for what I have,
That’s an easy way to start!
For the love that He shares,
Cause He listens to my prayers,
That’s why I say thanks every day!

Thanksgiving is upon us, with its stirring history of persecuted Christians alighting on a foreign shore in search of religious freedom, battered by stormy seas, and reduced to half their original numbers due to disease and other hardships. In the primitive and alien land, the small remnant learns to thrive with the help of the indigenous people — and they rejoice in their harvest with great joy. 

There has long been a Christian tradition of fasting in times of sorrow and feasting when the harvest is plentiful. The underlying tradition, though, is to rejoice in all things, confident in the providence of God. Have you ever noticed how the psalms express in heartfelt detail the agony and dejection of a soul crying out to God, but then always end in the hope and expectation of God’s protection, redemption, and generosity?

“The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth” by Jennie A. Brownscombe, 1914. Photo: Public Domain

Here’s a last bit of neuroscience for you. Our brains have a property called neuroplasticity, which means that what we habitually practice affects the wiring of our brains. The more we do a particular thing or think particular kinds of thoughts, the more our brains reshape neurological pathways to accommodate them. Our brains are essentially shaped by our use of them. That’s why it’s a struggle to break a bad habit, but practicing the new habit eventually feels natural to us, as our brains adapt once again. 

So if you’re in the habit of counting your gripes instead of your blessings, your brain is only waiting for you to practice a new and better way of thinking, eagerly poised to accommodate your growth in virtue! Again, could this be any more consistent with the ways of God? His designs are amazing, and I’m certainly thankful for that.  

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