The secret ingredient to a truly healthy and happy Thanksgiving isn’t found on the menu. Modern research has confirmed what the Pilgrims knew and practiced: Deliberate thankfulness in even the most difficult and challenging circumstances leads to greater happiness, better health, enhanced relationships and better resilience. It’s a discipline that looks past hardship toward hope and a future.
And the Pilgrims knew a lot about overcoming huge obstacles with hard work and a grateful attitude.
Recently, I was invited by friends in Plymouth, Massachusetts, to have an early Thanksgiving dinner. The traditional meal was exquisite, but the location was grand, overlooking Lot Number 1, about 400 yards from Plymouth Rock, which is believed to be the site of the first Thanksgiving celebration in America nearly 400 years ago.
Considering the life-threatening conditions and deadly trials the Pilgrims had faced, it’s not easy to see what motivated them to hold a Thanksgiving celebration in the fall of 1621. After all, they had arrived just in time for winter a year earlier and suffered devastating losses. Nearly half of the 102 pilgrims died during the winter. At the height of winter in February, they were dying at a rate of two per day. Tragically, 13 out of 18 of the wives died, and only three families remained unbroken by death that first winter.
Peter Marshall wrote in “The Light and the Glory” that “… these were not like other men. The more adversity mounted against them, the harder they prayed — never giving in to despair, to murmuring, to any of the petty jealousies that split and divide.”
Yet, they counted it all joy just to be “stepping-stones unto others for the performing of so great a work.”
As the Pilgrims approached the one-year mark in October 1621, William Bradford, governor of Plymouth, whose wife had died shortly after they arrived in the new world, proclaimed the first official day of Thanksgiving. The celebration was not just about their first bountiful harvest. They were grateful to have survived. One could argue it was their gritty thankfulness that helped them hold on and acquire the provisions they needed.
Such thanks begins with the understanding that you alone are not the source of all your blessings — that God has been active on your behalf. The Pilgrims’ faith provided the foundation of their gratitude, equipping them to do the impossible.
The Pilgrims came to America not just for the freedom to believe privately, but for the freedom to live publicly by those beliefs and create a culture where they could live fully integrated lives. The early settlers “enthusiastically supported the efforts of their leaders to create ‘a city on a hill’ or a ‘holy experiment,’” noted the Library of Congress in its exhibition on “Religion and the Founding of the American Republic.”
Their conviction to hold on by faith, through good times and bad, became the firm resolve needed to build a new nation.
The Apostle Paul referenced the will of God frequently in his writings in the Bible, though only on a handful of occasions did he specifically state this is the will of God. In his letter to the believers at Thessalonica, he wrote: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”
As it turns out, when we follow God’s instructions to give thanks, we get more in return than what we give.
Researchers like Dr. Robert A. Emmons, who have studied the power of gratitude, link it to greater optimism and better health with fewer visits to the doctor. Studies point to higher levels of energy among the grateful, better relationships, and even more restful sleep. Now that’s something to be thankful for!
Thankfulness is something to be cultivated. Daily prayer to God with thanks is a powerful way to develop a grateful heart. Keeping a journal of all the good in a person’s life has been shown to have an impact on health and attitude. Setting a goal of writing one to two thank you notes a month to family, co-workers or others who have blessed you also cultivates gratitude.
In fact, one study by Dr. Martin E.P. Seligman found that thanking someone with a letter who had never been adequately appreciated had benefits for the writer that lasted for a month. And you can imagine its impact on the person receiving the note.
Our nation was built with the kind of courage and gratitude ordinary people can show in extraordinary circumstances. This year, all of us should season our holidays with huge portions of the Pilgrims’ secret ingredient — deliberate gratitude. It will enhance every gathering no matter how big or how small. Make time this Thanksgiving to give thanks!
• Tony Perkins is president of the Family Research Council and is an ordained Southern Baptist pastor.