Congratulations. If you’re reading this, you’ve survived the Thanksgiving triple threat of undercooked turkey, indigestion and heated family table talk of impeachment.
But, aside from a fridge full of leftovers, what do we take away from this holiday?
The name itself seems to be a simple answer to a superfluous question. Thanksgiving. It is about giving thanks. Yes. That is appropriate, and good and necessary. We should be thankful for the blessings we receive.
But, should it be about more? I think sometimes we reduce the meaning of thankfulness down to simply offering up thanks for those things that make us happy. As philosopher and author Ralph Waldo Emerson pointed out, that is a shallow meaning of thankfulness.
“The purpose of life is not to be happy,” says a quote attributed to Emerson. “It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.”
You see, it is not enough to simply be happy for the blessings we have received. In order for those blessings to mean something, we must pass them on to others. We cannot simply give thanks. We must give of ourselves to express sincere thanks.
Philosophers, theologians and long lines of people far wiser than me have been saying this for eons.
From ancient Greece, Pericles tells us: “What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others.” Scripture tells us “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” The Peace Prayer attributed to St. Francis of Assisi takes that further, telling us “it is in giving that we receive.” Finally, the great Russian author Leo Tolstoy tells us there is no greater purpose than giving of ourselves, for “The sole meaning of life is to serve humanity.”
I think most of us accept this, at least on an abstract level, even if we don’t always act on it. But, scientists tell us the value of selfless giving — of true gratitude, expressed in action — is not just abstract. It is tangible and real.
In a 2010 article in “Psychology Today,” psychologists Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough elevate gratitude as the “forgotten factor” in human happiness. Benefits of gratitude include better physical health, improved mental alertness and may even prevent some mental illnesses.
Our brains, they tell us, are hardwired for gratitude. We are built — by our Creator, if you’re of faith — to be kind to each other. Showing gratitude, and better yet, giving selflessly to others, stimulates levels and types of satisfaction scientists can only relate to the most basic sources of human gratification — namely, a good meal and an orgasm.
A 2017 article in “Time” by Jenny Santi, author of “The Giving Way to Happiness: Stories & Science Behind the Life-Changing Power of Giving,” points out brain scans show “giving activates the same parts of the brain that are stimulated by food and sex.”
“Experiments show evidence that altruism is hardwired in the brain — and it’s pleasurable,” Santi wrote. “Helping others may just be the secret to living a life that is not only happier but also healthier, wealthier, more productive, and meaningful.”
This is the beautiful, blissful irony of the coding our Creator gave us. You want the greatest, truest level of selfish gratification possible? Be as selfless as possible.
I know many of you reading this already are following this advice, which is really just a centuries-old truism scientists have gone to a great deal of effort and money to empirically prove.
Our community is blessed with many generous people, who are truly selfless in giving to benefit good causes.
And, if you find yourself with a little extra cash this holiday season, there is no shortage of good causes in need of financial support.
But, we shouldn’t let our financial resources, or the lack of them, constrain our giving. In the truest spirit of Thanksgiving, there is a lot we can and should do that requires no money.
Share your time where it is needed. Offer your talents where they may serve others — we have talents for a reason. Be present for those who simply need the immeasurable blessing of human compassion.
A kind word, a smile or a few minutes of compassionate presence may have more impact for someone in need than even a significant monetary donation. And, I promise, a few more kind words, smiles and compassionate moments will pay great dividends for us all.
These simple expressions of selfless gratitude pay such great dividends because of a simple, incontrovertible fact — a fact our society goes to great lengths to deny and disprove.
We all are inextricably linked to each other. When we do good for another, we do good for ourselves. Good done for one is good done for all.
What should we carry with us from Thanksgiving? We cannot be thankful simply by giving thanks for what we’ve received. To be truly thankful, we must give of what we’ve received.
So, enjoy the gifts of this season. Especially, enjoy the gift of giving to others.