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.


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 B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.