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Opinion: A season of gratitude could bring together a nation

We’re lucky Thanksgiving comes so soon after Election Day. Expressing gratitude can help the nation heal its partisan divides and its toxic public dialogue

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Friends are shown enjoying Thanksgiving dinner.

Thanksgiving typically is a time for expressing gratitude. Studies show that doing this contributes to better mental health.

Rawpixel.com, Adobe Stock

Prudent adults know better than to talk about politics during Thanksgiving dinner.

But, as The Washington Post reminded us three years ago, the inverse is also true. The irony of American elections is that those who practice politics seldom talk about thankfulness.

That’s not entirely a bad thing, the Post said. After all, the Founding Fathers included the right to petition government for redress of grievances in the Constitution’s First Amendment. We’re supposed to complain if we see something wrong.

Candidates have, since the nation’s beginning, touted at least as many reasons to fear their opponents or to complain about current conditions as they have positive reasons why they, themselves, ought to have your vote instead.

But, as the Post said, “The normal and necessary ways of expressing and redressing grievances have gone badly awry. Society is consumed by negative partisanship. Restoring the right balance is the key to stabilizing the republic.”

That was three years ago, and it was written in the context of a Trump White House. But things have hardly changed. That was one year before a presidential election that one side continues to insist, without evidence, was rigged. It was before the nastiness the nation just endured during a midterm election that, despite all the analysis, has, above all, superbly demonstrated how evenly divided the nation is.

How fortuitous, then, that Election Day is followed so closely by Thanksgiving. The nation needs this holiday — not for its excess of food, but for its collective mental health. 

Researchers are constantly discovering new ways in which gratitude has a positive effect on mental health. 

In a 2017 post published by Berkeley’s Greater Good Magazine, Joshua Brown and Joel Wong, two scholars at Indiana University, wrote about a research study using college students who had sought mental health counseling. These were divided randomly into three groups — one that was told to write one letter of gratitude to someone else each week for three weeks; one group that was asked to write about their deepest thoughts and feelings about negative things that had happened to them; and one that did no writing activity at all.

The group that wrote letters of gratitude showed “significantly better mental health four weeks and 12 weeks after the writing exercise ended.” This was true even among those who never sent their letters.

Brown and Wong dug a little deeper. They found the most benefit came from the writers eliminating negative emotions, not necessarily from expressing positive ones. 

The researchers suggested that “gratitude letter writing produces better mental health by shifting one’s attention away from toxic emotions, such as resentment and envy.”

Why does this work? 

“When you write about how grateful you are to others and how much other people have blessed your life, it might become considerably harder for you to ruminate on your negative experiences.”

Brown and Wong also found that these mental health benefits did not come immediately. After one week, the letter-writing group showed little progress, but they began to show significant improvement after four weeks, and much more after 12, even though this was long after the letter-writing had stopped.

Simply expressing thanks around the table on Thanksgiving, or even writing a letter to someone, won’t do much unless you practice gratitude and make it a part of your life. 

That means we, as a nation, have a bit of work to do between now and the end of the year to rid ourselves of the toxic effects of the political season. 

We have some great examples from American history to help us. Abraham Lincoln paused from waging a blood-soaked Civil War in 1863 and issued a proclamation that noted the year had “been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies …”

In 1942, amid the death and destruction of WWII, Franklin D. Roosevelt turned to scripture for his annual proclamation. “It is a good thing to give thanks unto the Lord,” he said.

Those circumstances were far worse than any election. We have little excuse for letting our current divisions embitter us.

Presidents still issue Thanksgiving proclamations, although few people pay any attention. Churches still preach the virtues of gratitude and its close cousin, forgiveness

If we want to rid ourselves of the toxic bilge of the just-finished election, we should start listening to them.