Ethics & Public Policy Center

Giving Thanks in Tumultuous Times

Published in National Review Online on November 22, 2018


Our Thanksgiving family tradition is to go around the table and express gratitude for our blessings. It’s such a simple exercise, and yet almost as satisfying as the feasting. Maybe we shouldn’t confine it to Thanksgiving? We have observant Jewish friends who’ve done something like this every week at Shabbat dinners. Each person cites a “highlight of the week.” It sets a tone.

For me there is a spiritual dimension to giving thanks. But even from a purely instrumental perspective, there is good evidence that gratitude increases happiness. As the Harvard Healthbeat newsletter reports, a number of studies have tested this. Dr. Robert A. Emmons of the University of California, Davis, and Dr. Michael E. McCullough of the University of Miami designed a study in which participants were divided into three groups. The first was encouraged to record things that had gone well for them. The second took notes on things that irritated them. And the third just wrote down matters that had affected them for good or ill. At the end of ten weeks, those who wrote about gratitude were more optimistic and felt better about their lives. As a group they also exercised more and had fewer visits to physicians than the other study participants.

Dr. Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania tested a number of interventions on a group of 411 participants. When they were tasked with writing and delivering a letter of thanks to someone who had never been properly appreciated for an act of kindness, their happiness scores shot up, and the effects lingered for a full month.

We’ve focused a lot in the past few years about the darker aspects of human nature — our tribalism, our confirmation bias, our love of aggression — but those are not the whole story. If that were all humans were capable of, we’d all be lost. Consider that even in the sewer that Twitter can be, you will find stories of heroism, kindness to animals (have you seen the one about good Samaritans helping bear cubs escape from a dumpster?), and appreciation for the struggles of the handicapped.

The following people have not done anything near as great as saving bear cubs, but they deserve honorable mention. I hereby express gratitude to the commentators and other public figures who have kept their equilibrium in a difficult time. Some of the conservatives who have helped keep me sane: Jay Nordlinger, Bret Stephens, Ross Douthat, Anne Applebaum, Jonah Goldberg, Kevin Williamson, George Will, Yuval Levin, David Frum, Peter Wehner, Matt Lewis, Eliot Cohen, Bari Weiss, David French, Steve Hayes, and many more.

I am also grateful for a band of indomitable optimists who hope to preserve a humane and enlightened Republican party: Sarah Longwell, Bill Kristol, Charlie Sykes, and Linda Chavez.

I am likewise deeply appreciative of those on the center left who have reached out to find common ground as tectonic plates shift: Benjamin Wittes, Rachel Pritzker, Ian Bassin, Mike Berkowitz, Bill Maher, Yascha Mounk, and many more.

The past two years have sparked a deeper gratitude for those stubborn non-conformists, the libertarians. We may disagree on some subjects (heck, I don’t even agree with myself 100 percent of the time), but I respect their adherence to principle, which, in our time, feels almost antique: Jerry Taylor, Matt Welch, Katherine Mangu-Ward, Michael Moynihan, Kmele Foster, Brink Lindsey, and many more.

I am grateful to the voters who rewarded more centrist Democrats over more extreme progressives in 2018. Whether the party will get the message is another matter. I am grateful to Republicans such as Ben Sasse, Bob Corker, and Jeff Flake. Lindsay Graham? Some days. I hope he has a wonderful holiday.

I am thankful every single day for the genius founders of this country, who designed a system that is proving pretty near foolproof.

And finally, this may surprise you, I’m grateful that Donald Trump is not turning out to be quite as unstable as I feared. He thunders and fumes and has temper tantrums, yes, and he undermines important civic virtues daily. He is the antithesis of grace. He may well set back the cause of conservative governance by a generation, but he seems to be talked out of most of his craziest impulses. His presidency is feeling less like rabies and more like malaria. You can survive malaria.

Happy Thanksgiving.

COPYRIGHT 2018 CREATORS.COM

— Mona Charen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. 

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