This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.
Thanksgiving is a loaded word.
Who do we give thanks to? Most Americans would start out with God; less theistic souls might move directly to family and friends.
What do we give thanks for? That gets tricky.
These are not good times. Something like 17 percent of Americans – roughly one in six – either lack jobs, have stopped looking for jobs or have settled for part-time jobs that don’t remotely meet their needs. Many others have seen their incomes fall.
We’re calling it the Great Recession. As the saying goes, the difference between a recession and a depression depends on whether you or your neighbor lost the paycheck. But even those who’ve still got their livelihoods can’t escape the sense of malaise that hangs over their communities.
Plus, there are winds of malaise blowing our way from Europe, which seems more likely each week to make things worse on this side of the Atlantic.
No, this is not the happiest of Thanksgivings. Circumstances have been considerably worse before: in the depths of World War II, the Great Depression and the Civil War. But that’s no consolation in the here and now, especially for Americans who’ve grown up in relative prosperity and had no conception the U.S. economy could go this far off the tracks.
But the whole business of giving thanks – on Thanksgiving Day or whenever – appears to offer considerable solace in and of itself, even in tough times.
In recent years, psychologists have gotten increasingly interested in the phenomenon. It seems that very act of turning outward to express gratitude is a powerful distraction from inward misery.
As University of Miami researcher Michael McCullough put it to the Associated Press: “Oprah was right. When you are stopping and counting your blessings, you are sort of hijacking your emotional system. … It does make people happier.”
University of California psychologist Robert Emmons elaborated: “Gratitude also serves as a stress buffer … Grateful people are less likely to experience envy, anger, resentment, regret and other unpleasant states that produce threats.”
This isn’t to suggest that a one-day exercise in counting blessings can compensate for grief, a sudden plunge of income, the loss of a house or acute loneliness during a holiday. Very little could.
But the impulse behind Thanksgiving offers some measure of strength for the distressed and better-off alike. Even in the worst of years, we can give thanks for giving thanks.