Thankfulness is the least valued or revered of all human emotions.
And don’t take my word for it, listen to the economist Richard Layard whose book Happiness subjects our lives to a statistical analysis that draws lessons on the basis of economic outcomes. After exhaustive research, Layard, who founded Europe’s leading economics research center at the London School of Economics, comes to this conclusion:
‘People are happier if they are compassionate; they are happier if they are thankful for what they have. When life gets rough, these qualities become ever more important.’
Despite Layard’s evidence, that all of us do better with gratitude in our hearts, thankfulness is something that we struggle to articulate. And we’re not alone.
Shakespeare can divine every human emotion imaginable, from jealousy (Othello) to psychosis (King Lear), but thankfulness is a less prominent commodity in his canon of works.
But if you don’t regard Shakespeare as an authority then what about the library of business literature? Perhaps surprisingly, in light of Layard’s research, most of the books on the psychology of business focus on goals, ambitions and personal planning. But gratitude? Not so much.
For myself, the experience of thankfulness came neither from literature nor economics but from being born in a family where one of the children was severely disabled. My brother Tommy was born with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy. He was born a year before myself, but although he was a year older, it soon became apparent that he was not a year stronger.
I can remember the experience, at around the age of 8, being able to beat him across short distances on the housing project in south London where we were lived. When we fought over toys, like Matchbox cars, he could never win the fight. It remains a deep and abiding pain, and shame, that I did not realize what was happening until I reached the age of about 12. His body was poisoned with a disease that would ultimately kill him.
But from the moment I realized how fortunate I was, thankfulness drove almost every one of my endeavors. How could it not? As I became stronger, through adolescence, Tommy became weaker. He went from walking alone to being wheelchair-bound and incapable of feeding himself. And every day, I realized how fortunate I was to have a fully functioning body and limbs that were strengthening not atrophying.
Although I was short (5’ 6”) and slight (150lbs), it was gratitude that drove me to do better than expected at the sport of rugby—a game not dissimilar to football, although without the pads and without any breaks in play. I was not particularly gifted nor unusually talented but I had the experience of a brother who could not walk and that drove me. How could it not? I had four working limbs and, by the age of 9, he had none.
And this has applied throughout my life. Whenever challenges have arisen, I have always been grateful for all the benefits, which I possess, that I brother did not. It has become a driving force.
The writer and theologian Dr Timothy Keller, who has suffered with cancer himself and leads a congregation in New York City, suggests that the current generation of western professionals are the least prepared for suffering and the least inclined to be thankful (see Counterfeit gods by T.J.Keller). It’s a poor combination that is unlikely to survive the tests that life throws at us.
But the unique fact of America is that every year, regardless of our cultural/religious/ethnic background or persuasion, Thanksgiving arrives to force us to reflect upon something that we may not be so inclined to do: give thanks. It is probably more important than any of us realize.
I give thanks for a brother who taught me the value of every physical benefit that I may take for granted. I give thanks because his life spoke deeply into mine. I give thanks that, though his life was short, he taught me how to live long and deep. I give thanks for Tommy, every Thanksgiving.