Opinion: A strong dose of gratitude could heal the nation

Abraham Lincoln understood how important gratitude was for a suffering nation riven by war. Imagine how the nation today would change if people spent more time deliberately cultivating reasons to give thanks

People who fret today about a lingering pandemic, heated political divisions and other depressing conditions of modern life should take a step back during this four-day Thanksgiving weekend and think about Abraham Lincoln.

His Thanksgiving Proclamation of 1864 remains a landmark of American history — not so much because of its eloquence, but because of the circumstances under which it was written.

The nation was at the deadliest point of a long Civil War, one that had touched almost every American household. Gettysburg, Antietam and many other battles already had claimed the lives and the health of thousands upon thousands of people. Black bunting, the sign of mourning, was a common household adornment as people agonized over loved ones lost. No one could be certain when the violence would end, or when it would touch them personally.

It was against this backdrop that Lincoln pondered the nation’s blessings from God. “He has largely augmented our free population by emancipation and by immigration,” he said, “while he has opened to us new sources of wealth and has crowned the labor of our workmen in every department of industry with abundant rewards.”

God, he said, “has been pleased to animate and inspire our minds and hearts with fortitude, courage, and resolution sufficient for the great trial of civil war into which we have been brought by our adherence as a nation to the cause of freedom and humanity, and to afford to us reasonable hopes of an ultimate and happy deliverance from all our dangers and afflictions.”

Lincoln may not have been conscious of all the benefits of what he was doing — these thoughts likely were a part of his character that evolved from his upbringing and serious reflection on weighty matters — but he was practicing the one thing researchers today say can help people the most through difficult times: expressing gratitude.

This is more than just a warm, seasonal message. Research has shown that those who deliberately practice gratitude can train their minds to see the world differently, reaping many benefits in the process.

Several studies have demonstrated this. Joshua Brown, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at Indiana University, and Joel Wong, an associate professor of counseling psychology at Indiana University, created three study groups of people who were already seeking help for mental health concerns. One group was asked to write a letter of gratitude to another person each week for three weeks. One was asked to write their deepest thoughts and feelings concerning negative things. The third group was not required to do any writing.

Members of the first group were found to have “significantly better mental health four weeks and 12 weeks after their writing exercise ended,” they wrote for Greater Good Magazine. Among their findings: Gratitude frees people from toxic emotions, and it has long-lasting effects on the brain. 

Subjects had their brain waves scanned, showing that gratitude led to distinct brain activity, separate from that related to guilt or wanting to help a cause.

Similarly, the Harvard Medical School recently reported: “In positive psychology research, gratitude is strongly and consistently associated with greater happiness. Gratitude helps people feel more positive emotions, relish good experiences, improve their health, deal with adversity, and build strong relationships.”

Harvard researchers recommended several ways to cultivate gratitude. Among them was prayer, meditation and the deliberate counting of one’s blessings.

The religious connection to gratitude is strong. Last year, as the pandemic threatened to dampen the holiday season, President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (which owns the Deseret News), offered a prayer of gratitude and invited people to flood social media with messages about the things for which they give thanks.

“Counting our blessings is far better than recounting our problems,” President Nelson said. “No matter our situation, showing gratitude for our privileges is a unique, fast-acting, and long-lasting spiritual prescription.” Hundreds of thousands of people responded to the invitation and an estimated 52 million people viewed a video message by President Nelson expressing the importance of gratitude.

President Lincoln understood how important gratitude was for a suffering nation riven by war. Imagine how the nation today would change if people spent more time deliberately cultivating reasons to give thanks. 

It would make Thanksgiving weekend a true hinge-point of history.