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Gratitude: a healthy recipe for Thanksgiving

Gratitude is an ethic that experts now see as equally secular and religious – not to mention a healthy recipe for Thanksgiving all year round.

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Many scientists consider gratitude a helpful survival strategy during difficult times, says Randy A. Sansone, a professor at Wright State University School of Medicine in Dayton, Ohio. But this may not always have been the case. Negative thinking, and its focus on recognizing and defeating threats to physical survival, may have been the more adaptive approach until recent times, he explained in an e-mail interview.

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These days, personal development, temperament, life trauma, and a culture of entitlement affect how thankful a person is. And personal morality dictates how those thanks are used. After all, an insincere shower of thanks – when not totally transparent and boring – can exploit somebody who's a soft touch and can manipulate the generous for personal gain.

To qualify as virtue, thankfulness needs to meet a high standard.

"It's not just about doing the right thing, but doing it for the right reason," says Professor Miller, at the Character Project. "If you make lots of donations to charity so you get your name in the paper, that's not it." If you do lots of virtuous acts, but your heart is self-centered, then you don't have the virtue, he says. Even learning about the benefits of gratitude so you can reap those benefits doesn't count either, he adds. "The key is not only to be grateful, but to do it out of genuine thanksgiving."

Schools often present a gratitude how-to. In Washington, D.C., the nonprofit advocacy group Character Education Partnership frequently helps school districts that are experiencing problems – an atmosphere of entitlement, for example, or hazing or other bad behavior. The partnership builds thankfulness into its schoolwide interventions from the earliest years. Little kids might talk in circle time about all that they have. In studying a poorer country, high-schoolers may reflect on the contrast between those nations and their own.

Joe Mazzola, president and CEO of the partnership, says helping others, something as simple as raising money for backpacks for students at a poorer, neighboring school, makes for grateful givers as well as recipients, as his charges realize how very fortunate they are in comparison.

At Project Wisdom, Matula's passion for gratitude also has her students practicing it in a range of exercises. They may be thanking soldiers on Armed Forces Day, using gratitude as an antidote to feeling whiny, or adopting it as a conscious stance in the face of stress.

Learning to recognize kindness

But no one beats good old Mom and Dad for lessons in thankfulness, experts say.

"The easiest way for me to explain gratitude to [tots] is through their parents – to show them that their parents supply them with everything they need," explains nursery school teacher Ms. Snarski.

Parents can seize the moment when somebody does a kindness for their child, says psychologist Froh. Ask the child what happened, he suggests: What did the giver intend? What might it have cost that person in money, say, or in time or emotion – to do the kindness? What benefit did the child receive as a result?

The goal of such an exercise? Awareness, Froh says, "that I have these good things in my life and part of the source lies outside of me."

Thanksgiving quiz: More than just a bird in the oven

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