Thanksgiving – A Remedy for Unhappiness?

A common wish we hear people say is, “I just want you to be happy”, or “as long as you’re happy”. Happiness seems to be the highest pursuit for so many people today. The American Declaration of Independence even includes the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”. Marketing companies work hard to tell us what we need to be happy, because according to them, what we have is never enough. On social media, the temptation to compare ourselves with others is all too common. We see people look so happy with their lives from their posts, and when we don’t feel the same way about our lives, we think something is missing.

A study by psychologists, Matthew A. Killingsworth and Daniel T. Gilbert of Harvard University states that “people spend 46.9 percent of their waking hours thinking about something other than what they’re doing, and this mind-wandering typically makes them unhappy.” 1 So it seems, for a variety of reasons, we are constantly trying to look for happiness outside ourselves, and this in itself is causing us to be unhappy. What is the remedy for our unhappiness? Is it truly in attaining better things, better experiences, better life situations, better community, or better work? It’s possible that all of these things could contribute to happiness, but I’d like to suggest a remedy that comes at no cost, and can be utilized immediately, it’s thanksgiving!

This past weekend, Pastor Dave gave a sermon on The Power of Thanksgiving (watch HERE). In that sermon we learned that thankfulness is the key to contentment in life. We can think of contentment as being happy with our present lives, and not just as it will be, or could be. The Apostle Paul is a great example of being content, but not because everything went well for him or because he had everything he wanted. In 2 Corinthians 11:16-33, he outlines his hard work, imprisonment, flogging, near death experiences, lashes, beating with rods, stoning , shipwrecks, endangerment, hunger, and pressures. Yet despite all of these things, he is able to write, “I have learned how to be content with whatever I have. I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little. For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength” (Philippians 4:11-13 NLT).

How was the Apostle Paul able to live this way? I believe the answer can be found in reading what he wrote a few verses earlier:

Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus.

And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise. (Philippians 4:6-8 NLT)

The Apostle Paul embraced an attitude and lifestyle of thanksgiving, especially in times of worry and need. His giving thanks was directed to God and in return he received the peace of God which went beyond his understanding. This practice of thanksgiving helps us to acknowledge the goodness of God in our lives and in essence helps us to connect with God Himself, who is so much bigger and greater than all our needs, wants, worries and problems.

Psychologists, Dr. Robert A. Emmons from the University of California and Dr. Michael E. McCullough from the University of Miami, did research on the power of thanksgiving (or gratitude) that showed interesting results. All participants were divided into three groups, and were asked to write a few sentences each week. The first group wrote about what they were grateful for, the second group wrote about what irritated/displeased them, and the third group wrote about what affected them (positive or negative). After 10 weeks, it was clear that the first group that focused on being grateful, “were more optimistic and felt better about their lives. Surprisingly, they also exercised more and had fewer visits to physicians than those who focused on sources of aggravation.”2 How amazing that medical research lines up with what the Bible has been saying all along!

Now that we’ve established the power of thanksgiving to improve our overall happiness (or contentment), you might be wondering how can this attitude of thanksgiving be cultivated in our lives and not just on Thanksgiving Day (for those living in North America) once a year. Here are 3 ways you can grow in an attitude of Thanksgiving all year round:

1. Fix your thoughts on good things 

The Apostle Paul gave us a clear piece of wisdom on what to do when we feel worried or even unhappy in Philippians 4:8. We must choose to fix our thoughts on things that are true, honourable, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent and worthy of praise. Now this is not to say we should ignore all negative emotions, in fact, addressing negative emotions or thoughts through journaling, with a friend or with a counselor can help us understand what needs healing. But what I’m talking about is our daily habits.

According to medical research from Berkeley University, things like “gratitude letter writing produces better mental health by shifting one’s attention away from toxic emotions, such as resentment and envy. 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.”3

2. Thank God in prayer

The Apostle Paul not only instructed the church in Philippi to pray about everything and tell God what they needed, but he also urged them to thank God as well (Philippians 4:6). When we pray with thanksgiving, we are remembering and becoming more aware of God’s constant love and care for us. Romans 8 reminds us that nothing can separate us from God’s love. But as we have mentioned already, it seems we are surrounded by many things that can make us feel like we are in constant lack and that perhaps we are not as loved by God as we might have thought.

In order to remain in a confident place of knowing God’s love and His goodness, sometimes we need to speak words of praise and thanksgiving to encourage our soul. King David demonstrated this when he wrote, “Let all that I am praise the Lord; with my whole heart, I will praise his holy name. Let all that I am praise the Lord; may I never forget the good things he does for me” (Psalm 103:1-2 NLT).

3. Meditate on God’s Word

Reading, thinking upon, memorizing and studying God’s Word, the Bible, is the primary way we come to know God. The more we know Him, the more we love Him, and the more we love Him, the more we give Him thanks. King David understood the immense benefit of meditating on God’s Word and he grew in an attitude of thankfulness, focusing on what was truly valuable in his life. He wrote in Psalm 119:35-37 (NIV), “Direct me in the path of your commands, for there I find delight. Turn my heart toward your statutes and not toward selfish gain. Turn my eyes away from worthless things; preserve my life according to your word.”

The power of thanksgiving cannot be underestimated, as it is a key factor in our daily happiness (or contentment). If so much of the world pursues it, wouldn’t it make sense to pay attention to what determines it? As followers of Jesus, we have the benefit of knowing the God to whom we give all thanks, glory and praise. He is our source of everything we need, and in His power, we can grow to be a thankful people. Our happiness is not dependent on what we have, on what we can achieve or on what we do, but rather, it is found in knowing the God who loves us and becoming more aware of His goodness in our lives.