Thanksgiving and Faith
Amidst the advertisements reminding us that Christmas is a few weeks away, millions in the U.S. will pause to celebrate Thanksgiving. Ideally, people will share a traditional meal with family and friends. It will be a time to experience joy and express gratitude. The tradition carries images of people who had lived in North America for centuries sharing a feast with new arrivals from England. Like a giant gold-framed antique painting, joyful people are forever portrayed in quaint clothes celebrating a harmonious relationship. Christian children learn the English offered thanks to God for their survival and for the harvest.
Admittedly, for millions in the U.S., it will not be a joyful occasion. And many might be more in the mood of expressing their sadness and disappointment rather than conjuring up some thankful trope to answer the recurrent question: “And what are you thankful for?” So it is with any feast day round the world. Some people are seemingly always thankful and others find the downside in every event.
So, apart from a prayer of thanks, how can thanksgiving be a spiritual experience? I have a few ideas. Thanksgiving fits nicely with a line of Positive Psychology research focused on gratitude. In a previous post, I identified 12 characteristics of people who are high in gratitude. And I listed research findings supporting the value of developing gratitude such as the benefits of keeping a gratitude journal. Here I want to consider how gratitude fits as a spiritual experience.
1. Gratitude Connects People
The Hebrew Bible contains a collection of psalms (e.g., Psalms 118, 138) illustrating the expression of thanks to God. Christians also celebrate these psalms and add their own scriptures (e.g., 1 Thessalonians 5:18) to show the importance of thanksgiving. For Jews and Christians, a loving attitude toward others is a natural expression of loving God. Muslims living in the U.S., also report that Thanksgiving is compatible with the natural expression of thanking God for His blessings.
Loving others often includes expressions of gratitude for who they are and the way the other people in our life contribute to our well-being. These connections are deeply spiritual. Although atheists obviously do not avow belief in a god, their connections to family and friends via expressions of gratitude can indeed be spiritual as well.
Thankful people build positive connections.
2. Gratitude Helps Make Life Meaningful
Religion and spirituality have been notoriously difficult to define in a way that captures the experiences of people throughout the world. Most human beings express belief in supernatural beings and engage in rituals they consider sacred, special and holy. At this point in my understanding, I like the approach of Ray Paloutzian and Crystal Park (2013) who view religion and spirituality as part of our human capacity to create meaning. It seems as if people everywhere ask questions about life. People seek meaning. And religions offer people prepackaged ways to organize many of life’s events.
So where does gratitude fit in? When people express gratitude they are appraising the people and events in their life. They are thankful for family and friends, places to live, jobs, and many many other things. Expressing such values is an act of assigning meaning. People who are thankful to be united with a family member or good friend find that person makes life more meaningful.
Giving thanks creates meaning.
3. Gratitude Motivates People to Pursue Spiritual Goals
To increase expressions of gratitude can indeed be a spiritual goal in itself. But taking the time to express gratitude can also be motivating. We witness this when we see people donate time, possessions, and money to promote the well-being of others. In the U.S., people who are not busy preparing to host a large Thanksgiving Day gathering often take time to help a local charity feed and clothe those in need. And for those of us who are Christians, it is a timely reminder that the Christian holiday round the corner, Christmas, is a time of giving gifts. Gratitude is linked to generosity.
Gratitude is part of spiritual growth and development.
4. Gratitude is Linked to a Positive Approach to God
In goal theory, psychologists have explored how people may be oriented toward goals by approach or avoidance incentives. Some Christians have a positive approach toward God. They desire to be in his presence and come with thanksgiving in their hearts. Gratitude is part of their approach motivation. Others act out of a sense of duty and express fear of what God might do to them if they fail to live according to his commandments. This fear based motivation characterizes the avoidance orientation. In their summary of recent research, Robert Emmons and note that the spiritual goals might be similar.
People with both approach and avoidance orientations may want to minister to the disenfranchised around the world but they are oriented toward their goals by different motivating trajectories. The approach orientation is linked to a more satisfying spiritual experience and may be linked to finding more meaning in the experience. Those who maintain an approach orientation toward God and in their spiritual goals experience less anxiety and do not struggle with the negative effects of the avoidance orientation. An avoidance orientation is linked to anxiety and worry, a biased recall of negative information, more negative feelings, and lower self-esteem. In short, avoidance motivations are linked to a lower sense of well-being.
For more information, see the recent review of research, Gods and Goals, by Robert A. Emmons and Sarah A. Schnitker (2013).
Here’s a quote illustrating the gratitude-approach orientation:
Enter his gates with thanksgiving
and his courts with praise;
give thanks to him and praise his name.
(Psalm 100:4, NIV)
Thanksgiving can be the starting point of an enriching spiritual journey.
Emmons, R. A., & Kneezel, T. T.(2005). Giving thanks: Spiritual and religious correlates of gratitude. Journal of Psychology and Christianity, 24, 140-148.
Emmons, R. A. & Schnitker, S. A. (2013). Gods and goals: Religion and purposeful action. In R.F. Paloutzian & C.L. Park. (Eds.). Handbook of the psychology of religion and spirituality (2nd ed.) pp. 3-22. New York, Guilford.
Paloutzian, R.F. & Park, C.L. (2013). Recent progress and core issues in the science of the psychology of religion and spirituality. In R.F. Paloutzian & C.L. Park. (Eds.). Handbook of the psychology of religion and spirituality (2nd ed.) pp. 3-22. New York, Guilford.