To Think and Give Thanks

We all want to be hap­py. But what does that even mean? For most, it means hav­ing our health, a lov­ing fam­i­ly, a job we enjoy, and finan­cial sta­bil­i­ty. Yet we exist in a cul­ture that con­flates hap­pi­ness with a con­sump­tion of goods rather than with our val­ues. We’re told that lux­u­ry and con­ve­nience bring hap­pi­ness, that a sat­is­fied, joy­ful life is one filled with exot­ic vaca­tions and leather fur­ni­ture and big­ger houses. 

If we feel hap­py, then we bet­ter get hus­tling because that hap­pi­ness has an expi­ra­tion date that only a dis­pos­able income can keep fresh. In this way, the pur­suit of hap­pi­ness is a tread­mill we can’t get off and leaves no space for feel­ing grate­ful for what we already have at this moment.

What’s iron­ic is that sci­ence says that the hap­pi­est peo­ple on earth are those who reg­u­lar­ly prac­tice being grate­ful. There is a dis­tinc­tion between feel­ing grate­ful and being grate­ful. Feelings are more of an auto­nom­ic, chem­i­cal response in our brain. We don’t have total con­trol over our emo­tions, and we can­not make our­selves feel grateful.

But being grate­ful is a choice. The word thanks comes from the Latin word tongēre, mean­ing “to think.” It’s a verb, an inten­tion­al action. We are being asked to think and give thanks, to acknowl­edge what we have instead of com­plain­ing about what we don’t or wish­ing we had more. Being grate­ful is a pre­vail­ing atti­tude that endures and is rel­a­tive­ly immune to the nat­ur­al flow of abun­dance and scarci­ty in our lives. 

Of course, it’s eas­i­er to be grate­ful on the sal­ad days. But what about when life gets hard? The world feels a lit­tle uncer­tain these days. The news seems to be a con­stant onslaught of hor­ri­fy­ing pho­tos from Gaza or Ukraine, the newest eco­log­i­cal dis­as­ter, and the death toll from the lat­est mass shoot­ing. Our Supreme Court wants to strip us of all our free­doms. The econ­o­mists swear we aren’t in a reces­sion, but it’s been months since I haven’t gone over our gro­cery bud­get. (Why do rasp­ber­ries cost $6?)

Many of us feel pow­er­less and hopeless.

But buy­ing more stuff isn’t gonna solve our prob­lems, though it might momen­tar­i­ly feel like hap­pi­ness. When life sucks, being grate­ful pro­vides a per­spec­tive from which we can view life in its entire­ty and not be over­whelmed by tem­po­rary circumstances. 

When we express grat­i­tude, our brain releas­es dopamine and sero­tonin, the two cru­cial neu­ro­trans­mit­ters respon­si­ble for our emo­tions, and they make us feel “good.” They enhance our mood imme­di­ate­ly, mak­ing us feel hap­py in the short run. By con­scious­ly prac­tic­ing being grate­ful every day, we can ulti­mate­ly cre­ate a per­ma­nent grate­ful and opti­mistic out­look in the long run. 

As G.K. Chesterton writes, “I would main­tain that thanks are the high­est form of thought; and that grat­i­tude is hap­pi­ness dou­bled by wonder.”

In this sea­son of grat­i­tude, let’s inten­tion­al­ly strive to put some think in our thanks

Here are a few prompts to get start­ed. Choose one and real­ly think about your answer.

  1. Write about a kind­ness you wit­nessed recently.
  2. What hap­pened in the last week that made you laugh out loud?
  3. What is your favorite thing about where you live?
  4. Write about a movie that touched your heart, and why.
  5. Write about some­one that you real­ly admire.
  6. What was your favorite trip from the past year?
  7. What is some­thing that you are look­ing for­ward to this week?
  8. Write about your favorite book.
  9. What do you love most about the time you are liv­ing in?
  10. What are your favorite things to eat?
  11.  When do you feel most creative?
  12. What is a song that makes you want to dance?
  13. Write about strangers who help make your life easier.
  14. Where were you when you last watched a sun­rise or sunset?
  15. What excites you about the future?

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