If you grew up and went to school in the U.S., chances are every November your teachers spoke about the “First Thanksgiving.” In elementary school you probably drew or colored turkeys, fashioned pilgrim hats and feather headbands out of construction paper, and maybe even put on a “First Thanksgiving” school pageant for your parents.
No matter what our religion, social class, background or race, we all learned from an early age the importance of saying “thank you” and being grateful for all of our many gifts and blessings. Our teachers pointed out that the first pilgrims in 1621 were grateful to have survived their voyage to and first difficult year in the New World, and showed their appreciation by breaking bread together. Our teachers also explained that is why we celebrate as we do today–with a meal with our closest family and friends. However, the first modern or official Thanksgiving as it is known and celebrated today–a national holiday–didn’t take place until November 26, 1863 under President Abraham Lincoln. Faced with insurmountable difficulties, a Civil War and a divided nation, Lincoln took some advice from an unlikely source, a woman writer for a popular ladies’ magazine, Sarah J. Hale, who believed that there was something everyone in the country could agree on–the importance of giving thanks. Moreover, she believed that such a holiday and such an act–being grateful–might have a unifying and healing effect on the broken nation.
Lincoln agreed with her.
In a beautiful proclamation, which he wrote a month prior to giving his famed Gettysburg Address (delivered on November 19, 1863, just days before the first Thanksgiving), Lincoln asked his fellow Americans–Northern and Southern–to focus on all the good and loved ones in their lives and especially all those less fortunate than themselves, namely the “widows, orphans, mourners and sufferers,” and said: “It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American people. I do, therefore, invite my fellow-citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a Day of Thanksgiving.” The rest as they say is history. We still celebrate this holiday and we still find ways of overcoming our own personal differences and biases to come together to give thanks for all that we have.
Lincoln and Hale were ahead of their time. Science suggests just what Lincoln and Hale supposed–giving thanks unifies–is indeed true. In fact studies suggest that gratitude also makes people more purposeful, action-oriented, compassionate, hardworking, and eager to help others, more inclined to be selfless and put oneself aside for the common good. It also makes people considerably happier than those who don’t say thank you or who tend to complain, whine or blame. Studies show that even those who are faced with terrible injustices, illnesses or oppression, but who focus on the good in their lives and are grateful for whatever small sources of joy they do have are far more happy and fulfilled than people who seem to have no such trials but who seem to complain more or generally lack perspective or gratitude. The University of California-Berkeley dedicates an entire center to just this research. The Greater Good Science Center has spent years researching the phenomena of gratitude. In their research they have discovered what Lincoln and Hale knew instinctively: If you want people to be inspired, behave courageously and valiantly, work hard, succeed, come together, and help others–you must show them the importance of gratitude–and also give thanks as well.
Want to Inspire and Bring Others Together? The Importance of Giving Thanks at the Office
In an iconic scene in the television show Mad Men, which explores the fictionalized, not-so-pleasant advertising world in the sixties, a young copywriter enters her manager’s office and complains that she didn’t get “thank you” from him for her hard work (of which he also took credit). Her manager, the infamous Don Draper, says something to the effect of, “That’s what the paycheck is for.”
Indeed. We do our jobs and we get paid. But is it really enough? As Draper soon discovered, that young copywriter didn’t last long. She got a better offer at another firm, and of course, she took it. And even when Draper begged her to stay (even offering more money), it was too little too late. Because, let’s face it, saying thank you goes a long way–further than any paycheck ever could. What Draper didn’t realize is that if you want your employees to feel like they are part of your team, part of something bigger than themselves, work hard, and be inspired and motivated to keep working for you–you have to show some appreciation. Real, honest-to-goodness gratitude. Eventually, though only after his favorite employee walks out of his office door, Draper comes around and lets his employee know what she meant to him and how valuable she was. Lesson learned.
Yes, we all work for a paycheck, but most of us work for other reasons, too. We work because we like what we do. We like being good at what we do. We like being a part of something bigger than ourselves. Some of us are in jobs and careers where it is our daily business to help and serve others. Some of us go above and beyond every day. And one could argue–we’re doing much more than what is expected of us (or what we’re paid to do) in this economy. Teachers routinely dig inside their own pockets and pay for supplies for their classrooms. Nurses and doctors stay hours after their salaried shift is over just to make sure their patients are well cared for. Business men and women burn the midnight oil trying to help their companies get or stay ahead of the competition. Yes, some of these people are motivated by their own desires for personal success, but I would argue, as would the Center for the Greater Good, that something much bigger than themselves is motivating them as well. Teachers will often say that their students’ “smiling” or “grateful” faces make all their sacrifices worth it. Nurses and doctors will say the same about their once-sick-now-well patients: Their patients’ grateful faces and thank yous for a job well done keep them coming back to work every day. And I know several colleagues and business people who are driven by the next big idea–not because it will make them rich–but it could make the lives of others better and might even change the world. They all feel part of something bigger than themselves. They act in large part out of gratitude for their own lives, their own successes and a great desire to give back and help others in return.
Lincoln, Hale, the Center for Greater Good and even Don Draper can all concur: Saying Thank You goes a long way. And here at the Xavier Leadership Center, we couldn’t agree more. We are humbled by and grateful for your relationship with us and your commitment to learn and grow with us. And so we say: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours.