Some people take this day for granted. Some never will. What’s the dividing line?

Determination to look at origins and meaning.

I had conversations on radio with two scholars at the Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College about giving thanks as a nation on this designated occasion each year, why and how we do or should, and some life-changing benefits of gratitude. It was compelling.

Dr. Paul Kengor and I started with his article about giving thanks for great leaders in our nation’s history, and the conversation quickly turned to the nation’s leaders who acknowledged the blessings, rights and liberties that came not from government but from God, starting with President George Washington who proclaimed that a day should be set aside to give thanks, through President Abraham Lincoln designating the day in a formal proclamation to assure its continuation. Dr. Kengor, a presidential historian and best-selling author, made some important points about the role of faith in the nation’s history and in the public square today, and how important that right and presence remains in place.

Presidents have a “bully pulpit” he reminded, and what they say from it in speeches and proclamations matters for the nation’s character and understanding of the common good. Upholding the tradition of acknowledging a nation “under God” honors the source of the common good.

Giving thanks is also good for you. Dr. Gary Welton, professor of psychology, had very interesting remarks about the benefits of gratitude and how we can be transformed by it.

Historically, the field of psychology focused on mental illness and dysfunction. Positive psychology developed as a unique new subdiscipline as recently as 1998. Instead of investigating the question of what went wrong, positive psychology seeks to understand the fulfilling aspects of the human experience.

One aspect of life that has received much attention in this new field is the expression of gratitude. According to PsycNET, the database that indexes much of the psychological research, there were only 30 articles from 1989 to 1993 that dealt in any way with gratitude. In the next five years the number doubled to 66. The redoubling has continued every five years, so that in the current stretch from 2009 to 2013, there have been more than 640 articles dealing with gratitude. The science of mental processing has finally caught up to Abraham Lincoln and our national holiday.

And scientists are learning fascinating and demonstrable details of the effect of gratitude on an individual’s health.

For example, in the physical domain, gratitude can lower blood pressure, improve immune functioning, and increase energy. In the psychological realm, gratitude has been shown to reduce depression, anxiety, and substance abuse. Gratitude has also been shown to protect from the destructive impulses of envy, resentment, and bitterness, and may even offer some protection against psychiatric disorders. On the positive side, gratitude promotes happiness, altruism, joy, love, and enthusiasm. In fact, research suggests that the effect of gratitude is larger than the effects of optimism, hope, or compassion.

This is remarkable, and not beyond the reach, he said, of people who are characteristically more prone to seeing what’s wrong and complaining about it.

The research, however, suggests that it is not too late for me. Simple research manipulations, in which subjects were assigned journaling exercises to write down grateful thoughts on a daily basis, were effective in bringing about change. In some studies, the manipulations of these simple strategies resulted in significant increases in happiness and decreases in depression.

Subjects were asked to list things that bothered them, and then list things they’re thankful for, and then they focused on the positives once they recognized them. It’s something everyone can do and, Welton said, should do daily.

Practicing gratitude can impact our relationships with those around us and with our God. Perhaps the strong effect of gratitude is because it is inherently relational rather than being self-centered. Gratitude is an expression of selflessness as I move beyond the core selfishness of my being and express thanks to my creator and to those around me. It is, at its very roots, a humble act. As G. K. Chesterton wrote, “The proper form of thanks is some form of humility and restraint.”

Welton said “the problem is, we celebrate Thanksgiving on this one day, but it’s something we should be celebrating every day. We should think of someone or something we’re thankful for every day.” I agree.

I’m thankful for every good thing, every day. Including engaging with you, here.

Sheila Liaugminas

Sheila Liaugminas is an Emmy award-winning Chicago-based journalist in print and broadcast media. Her writing and broadcasting covers matters of faith, culture, politics and the media....