November 24, 2022 | David F. Coppedge

Archive Classic: The Science of Thanksgiving

Reprinted from Nov 24, 2011


Should science tread into areas of virtue? Here’s how a science news entry begins: “Rather than rolling your eyes when it’s your turn to bow your head and give thanks, try being grateful. The result just might be good for you. From boosting your mood to improving your relationships, research shows that being thankful is good for your health.

Right off the bat, an unusual article on Live Science assumes most people will roll their eyes at a thanksgiving prayer (meaning, this is stupid). That reveals a strong reporter bias. But then, the editors at Live Science assume science can turn a virtue into a self-serving goal: improving one’s own health. If you pretend to be thankful just to improve your own health, are you really being thankful?

Live Science is only echoing what Steve Toepfer of Kent State University thinks about the pragmatic benefits of gratitude. The self-serving end of his prescription is clear in the if-then statement: “If you are looking to increase your well-being through intentional activities, take 15 minutes three times over three weeks and write letters of gratitude to someone,” he said. But even if this activity results in measurable improvements in health and happiness by a scientist, it still begs the question of whether it is really thankfulness.  And what if the opening paragraph really advised praying thankfully instead of rolling one’s eyes at the blessing before the feast?

Suggested prayer for the secular self-serving follower of Toepfer: “Dear whatever is out there, I know you don’t exist, and this activity is dumb, but a scientist says it is good for my health, so I’m going to pretend to be thankful just to improve my well-being. So thank me, thank me, thank me, I really appreciate me.”

Suggested letter for the same: “Dear grandma, I really care about me, so I’m doing this exercise for my benefit. Dr. Toepfer, a scientist at Kent State, said my gratitude letter can’t be trivial, so I’m trying real hard to be honest here, but honestly, I can’t think of anything I’m thankful for except myself. Sorry to take up your time, but I’ll let you know if this 15-minute-a-week plan makes me feel better.”

Being thankful means getting your mind off yourself. Don’t let a scientist trick you with vain words. True thankfulness can only come from a heart that acknowledges its Creator. The reason God is angry is that his creatures do not acknowledge Him as God, and are not thankful (Romans 1:21). So to even start being thankful, you have to acknowledge your Maker as God. If you haven’t yet done that, Thanksgiving Day is a great time to enter the narrow gate. Drop your selfish baggage, admit your sin, acknowledge your Creator, and accept the sacrifice of his Son on the cross for your guilt. Once you appreciate the depth of love your God has displayed for you (Romans 5:1-11), it’s guaranteed to make you thankful (2 Cor 9:15). Any joy you will feel in your own heart, and any improvements to your health and well-being, will be mere by-products of a far greater goal: blessing God and others by your real, true, thankfulness.

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