The Habit of Thanksgiving

Studies show that people rarely keep their New Year’s resolutions. The problem seems to be that people don’t possess sufficient willpower nor do they turn their resolutions into a habitual practice.

We’ve just finished Thanksgiving, and we’re now entering a new Liturgical Year. Some people actually remembered to show thanks to God on Thanksgiving in the midst of inducing a food coma. But we might ask as we begin the new liturgical year in the Church whether we can learn to become more thankful, not only on one day of the year, but every day.

Here is where my friend Chris Kaczor’s wonderful new book The Gospel of Happiness can come in handy. Kaczor has mined the resources available in an area known as “positive psychology” for aids to spiritual practice. In the invaluable chapter on “The Way of Gratitude,” for example, Kaczor proposes several strategies for increasing gratitude. These strategies won’t necessarily make you feel more grateful. The goal, rather, is to make gratitude a more integral part of your life.

Take the “Three Blessings” exercise, sometimes called the “Three Good Things” exercise. At the end of the day, simply call to mind and reflect on three good things – three blessings – that you enjoyed that day. They need not be major things, although occasionally they might be.

The exercise is meant to help us focus attention on all the small blessings God supplies for us every day. Plenty of bad things happen every day, and there is plenty of evil and cruelty and unkindness we have to slog our way through. But it’s important to remember when we experience ourselves “in the shadow of the valley of death,” that God is with us, and that at no point are His blessings ever completely absent from our lives.

Another spiritual practice involves keeping a “gratitude journal,” in which we write each day about the blessings in our lives. There are various strategies for making these reflections less repetitive and broaden one’s perspective.

One such strategy involves making a different reflection each day of the way. On Mondays we might reflect on the gifts we’ve received from others, or the gift others have been to us. Tuesdays are for reflecting on good things that are going to end soon and which we should be sure we have appreciated fully. Wednesdays are for considering what life would be like had various blessings been absent: friends, family, education, prayer, health. Thursdays are for considering to whom we are grateful and for what: friends, family, teachers, coaches, fellow employees, doctors, nurses, spiritual directors, God. And on Friday, we write about times when something bad eventually turned into something good. I don’t mean that the “bad” thing merely seemed bad. They may have been very bad indeed: the loss of a job or a loved one. One needn’t minimize the badness to realize that God can take even the bad things in our lives and turn them into something good. With the cross comes the resurrection. And yet often enough there is no way to arrive at the joy of Easter Sunday without first experiencing the cross of Easter Friday.

kaczor

All of which brings us to the most potent expression of our thanksgiving: the regular celebration of the Eucharist, a Greek word meaning “thanksgiving.” The mobs of people attempting to be “festive” at this time of year should heed the wisdom Josef Pieper expresses in his book In Tune with the World: A Theory of Festivity when he suggests that:

Underlying all festive joy kindled by a specific circumstance there has to be an absolutely universal affirmation extending to the world as a whole, to the reality of things and the existence of man himself. . .that, to reduce it to the most concise phrase, at bottom everything that is, is good, and it is good to exist. For man cannot have the experience of receiving what is loved, unless the world and existence as a whole represent something good and therefore beloved to him.

This is why for Pieper the ultimate foundation of all festivity is found in worship, whereby we receive the world and existence as a whole as something good, something to be loved, and something for which we can be thankful.

The point is, you have to take that resolution to be more thankful and incorporate it into a habitual disposition; you have to weave it into the fabric of your life so that your very existence is one of gratitude.

There are plenty of such pieces of good advice in Prof. Kaczor’s book, not only on gratitude, but also on prayer, forgiveness, happiness, and virtue. But let me close with two admonitions: one for those who think that the suggestions above are a bit corny, and another for those who suspect they’re not, but aren’t sure they have the willpower to do them.

As for “corniness,” it’s often the things that seem corny, especially to those who style themselves as very sophisticated – things like prayer, love, holding a person’s hand, stroking your beloved’s hair – that can be the most profound. These things shouldn’t be mistaken for mere “sentimentality,” a spiritual disease Flannery O’Connor had no patience for. I tell my male students: “Don’t forget to take flowers.” “But that’s so corny,” they reply, living as they do in an ever-so-sophisticated world of the super cool. “Try it.” And when they do, they invariably come back utterly amazed, saying “Wow, I can’t believe it – like that old corny stuff still works!”

Yes, it does.

As for lacking the willpower, there’s a very good chapter in Prof. Kaczor’s book on that subject. It turns out modern psychology has tools that can help with that, too. If you ask, God will supply what you need. Sometimes He sends you a book filled with good advice to help keep you on the straight and narrow.

That’s something to be grateful for.

Randall Smith

Randall Smith

Randall B. Smith is the Scanlan Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston. His most recent book, Reading the Sermons of Thomas Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide, is now available at Amazon and from Emmaus Academic Press.

  • Michael DeLorme

    As soon as I began reading your article, Professor Smith, I thought of Josef Pieper’s essay “The Philosophical Act,” in “Leisure the Basis of Culture'” so I was pleased to find your referencing a book of his I haven’t read.

    I wonder, though, whether the failure to keep New Year’s resolutions has less to do with ingratitude than with the fact that New Year’s Day—although we Catholics honor January 1st as the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God—is not, itself, a religious holiday.

    As you’ve noted “for Pieper the ultimate foundation of all festivity is found in worship.” In “The Philosophical Act” Pieper goes on to say “There is no such thing as a festival ‘without gods’—whether it be a carnival or a marriage.”

    He tells us that this isn’t a requirement or an insistence on how things should be; it’s simply a statement of fact: “…however dim the recollection of the association may have become…a feast ‘without gods,’ and unrelated to worship, is quite simply unknown.”

    Pieper then tells his readers that, yes, ever since the French Revolution there have been numerous attempts to “manufacture feast days and holidays that have no connection with divine worship…even that hybrid, Labor Day.”

    “…the stress and strain of giving them some kind of festal appearance is one of very best proofs of the significance of divine worship for a feast…”

    My point here is that I haven’t so much as made a New Year’s resolution since I was 10, let alone failed to keep one. New Year’s Day is not entirely “manufactured,” in Pieper’s sense; yet I’ve never found it engaging as a holiday.

    At the same time, I suspect that if there were an annual tradition of making resolutions on, say, Easter, I would make and likely keep one or two of them in celebration of “the gods.”

  • PCB

    Very good essay and one I think we can all be thankful for – it’s sometimes difficult, in this world where it seems our better sensibilities are under constant assault, to remain grateful and not to become discouraged, disheartened or cynical. When the world is quick to sneer, “Never does a good deed go unpunished” – respond, “Never does a good deed come without it’s cross”, and see just how quickly the discouragement (and discourager) disappears.

  • Dominic

    A well-known 12-Step program reminds its fellows that, “A grateful heart will never have to drink.”

    When our children were growing up we would have them add after their “formulaic” evening prayers, “And, thank you God for…”

  • chrisinva

    Glad to hear Chris has another book – his past contributions have made great gifts.

    The “Three Gifts” positive thinking brings to mind the U of Pennsylvania prof who made millions from the Department of Defense some ten years ago by instituting a “groundbreaking” program – to prevent suicides, as I recall — the total content of which was to encourage service members to think three positive thoughts before going to sleep.

    That taxpayer-funded contract was worth several million dollars.

    Chris – call the Pentagon! They need you!

  • Stanley Anderson

    Even well before Thanksgiving this year I have been contemplating an idea of the sort I refer to as a “wonderment” (in a kind of Humpty-Dumpty “when I use a word it means precisely what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less” fashion) — ie, a wonderment in my definition is something I don’t proclaim to be necessarily doctrinal or true, but simply interesting to contemplate and something I am glad to rescind if shown to be untrue or against Church teaching.

    Anyway, as background, one aspect of the “begotten” nature of the Second Person of the Trinity, the Son, that is different from our worldly view of begetting where a person does not exist at a point in time, and then at a later point in time is begotten and now exists. The Son is not begotten at a “point in time” but “exudes begotten-ness” as a manner of being (I realize there may be technically problematic theological issues with that choice of words — like Indiana Jones, “I’m making this up as I go”).

    So I was contemplating in my wonderment the idea that perhaps a heavenly form of “thankfulness” or “gratitude” is not time-oriented the way we normally see it where we receive something and subsequently give thanks for it. What I note in the Gospels is that Jesus nearly always seems to “give thanks” as an initial gesture rather than as a reaction to something. Of course we too “give thanks” before a meal, but I wonder if there is still an act of receiving the knowledge of prepared food ready to be eaten and THEN giving thanks for it that is different from Jesus’ acts of giving thanks.

    In other words, I wonder if there might be, like “begotten-ness” mentioned above, a state of “thankful-ness”, that exists independent of the linear time that we see the act of thanksgiving in from our fallen point of view? And it may be that that is necessarily the way we must see it in this fallen world. But I do wonder if we might strive to live in a “state of gratitude” as a grace from God. I’m not at all sure how this would manifest itself, but “in everything give thanks for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you” would suggest such a state.

    And in fact, this seems to be one of the primary points of today’s column (particularly the line, “The point is, you have to take that resolution to be more thankful and incorporate it into a habitual disposition; you have to weave it into the fabric of your life so that your very existence is one of gratitude”), so I was very pleased to read it today.

  • Elijah fan

    Just started doing thanks for one thing minimum each hour. Great to see others are coming up with the identical idea. Sounds like the Holy Spirit.
    You fortified me though in that now I know God is behind this.