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Thanksgiving 2010: In these hard times, are Americans thankful?

Thanksgiving 2010 finds Americans politically divided and struggling financially. But poll data suggest that Americans are fiercely resilient, a quality that is strengthened by feeling gratitude.

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A recent Angus Reid Public Opinion poll showed that nearly 4 in 5 Americans say they're either "very angry" or "moderately angry" with Congress and the federal bureaucracy in Washington, a sentiment that led to a political shake-up that put Republicans in control of the House of Representatives.

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A total of 52 House incumbents who stood for reelection lost their seats as the balance of power shifted.

Additionally, more than half of all "mainstream" Americans, according to the Rasmussen polling firm, now sympathize with the loosely organized tea party movement.

The breadth of that support correlates directly to American disenchantment, not only with Democrats in power, but with government as a whole, notes Noam Chomsky, the noted MIT linguist and philosopher, in a recent article. "It is ... appropriate to understand what lies behind the movement's popular appeal, and to ask ourselves why justly angry people are being mobilized," Chomsky writes.

A recent Audience Alliance Poll found that nearly 3 in 5 Americans believe the government is doing too many things that should be left to individuals, and 2 out of 3 don't want their taxes increased so government can help their neighbors.

When people receive what the government claims is their right, "the spirit of gratitude retreats from the social experience," writes Roger Scruton in the conservative American Spectator.

Robert Lane, emeritus professor of political science at Yale University in New Haven, Conn., who conducted research into comparative levels of happiness in different countries, takes a contrary position, arguing that an overemphasis on self-reliance can be a hurdle to finding common cause and expressing gratitude for the actions of others.

"Part of the reason America is the most depressed nation, the most anxious, is individualism and lack of a common culture," he says.

If Americans are thankful this year, will it benefit the whole country?

In the latter half of 2008, when Gallup showed the steepest dip in its "thrivability" index among Americans over the past three years, the polling organization also found that Thanksgiving was the highest-ranked holiday of the year in terms of people's happiness.

Taking note of blessings on a daily basis can have a powerful impact on general happiness, researchers say. For one thing, psychologists now theorize that "gratitude-motivated reciprocity" – or positive acts sparked by a feeling of thankfulness – raises the overall level of altruism in society.

Gratitude "is literally de-stressing," says Ms. Ryan, author of "AdaptAbility: How to Survive Change You Didn't Ask For." "When we're under stress, our stress response turns on.

"When, conversely, we have positive emotions – and gratitude is one of the easiest to experience – it dampens down the stress response, bringing our bodies, minds, and spirit back into balance," she says. "More interestingly, emotions like gratitude create an upward spiraling effect in which you get happier and happier."

Gratitude, Ryan says, is "a powerfully positive practice to deal with hard times."

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