November 2017

Timeless Wisdom on the Art of Being Thankful

Author: Kent Thune

Thanksgiving goes back in time far beyond the Pilgrims. From early religious scripture to ancient philosophy, giving thanks and finding contentment in life has been a significant aspect of human history for thousands of years.

So, for this Thanksgiving, and perhaps for many more to come, take a broader view of what it means to be thankful and try to remain that way throughout the year. No matter how you give thanks, whether it is through prayer, meditation, or general practice in keeping a positive perspective, you can use guidance from wisdom that stretches across millennia.

Perhaps the earliest written record of human beings giving thanks is from The Bible, like this one from Psalms 107:8-9, which dates back up to 3,000 years:

“Let them give thanks to the Lord for his unfailing love and his wonderful deeds for mankind, for he satisfies the thirsty and fills the hungry with good things.”

This strikes at the heart of the American celebration that is Thanksgiving. Just being thankful for our blessings and that there is food on the table on any day, not just Thanksgiving, will keep you rooted in a healthy perspective and serve as a reminder of those people less fortunate than you.

Many of the most important ancient Greek philosophers in history believed that contentment is the foundation of living a happy and healthy life. In fact, their word for happiness, eudaemonia, has a meaning that most resembles human flourishing, and certainly not anything that resembles fleeting pleasure. So, happiness to the ancient Greeks was more of a trait than a state.

Although Socrates (470 BC—399 BC) didn’t write down any of his teachings, he is attributed through his famous student Plato, as saying, “Contentment is natural wealth; luxury is artificial poverty.” One could translate this to mean that those who are thankful for having only what they need are already rich in the sense of fulfillment and true happiness, whereas the financially wealthy, in his experience, were rarely satisfied with what they had.

The Stoic philosophers were especially known for their belief in the virtue of contentment, which is evident in this quote from the best-known Stoic, Seneca (4 BC—65 AD):

“True happiness is to enjoy the present, without anxious dependence upon the future, not to amuse ourselves with either hopes or fears but to rest satisfied with what we have, which is sufficient, for he that is so wants nothing.”

This quote differentiates needs from wants; the contented person is satisfied with meeting his or her needs and thus has no wants. This contentment keeps one rooted in the present, where life is happening, rather than wishing for a better future.

The ancient Eastern philosophers also taught the importance of being thankful for what you have now. Lau Tzu, the founder of Taoism and reputed author of the Tao Te Ching, is thought to have lived during the fifth century BC and was known for teaching contentment in his writings:

“Be content with what you have; rejoice in the way things are. When you realize there is nothing lacking, the whole world belongs to you.”

This quote from Lau Tzu describes what many of us think about during our Thanksgiving celebration. Being thankful for our food, health, family, friends, and the roof over our heads is a reminder that, when we have these things, we are truly rich in the healthiest sense of the term.
A contemporary of Lau Tzu, Confucius (551 BC—479 BC) may be the most widely known Eastern philosopher and is famous for his sage advice, such as this quote from him on contentment:

“To be truly happy and contented, you must let go of the idea of what it means to be happy or content. When you understand there is really nothing to be happy or sad about, then you will be truly contented.”

This quote from Confucius is a bit abstract, but if we dig deep enough, we find that concerning ourselves with ideas and concepts of happiness may paradoxically lead away from our happiness. Forget about it and just be happy! Also, external things should not make us happy or sad. Contentment lies within.

Now let’s fast forward to the mid-nineteenth century and come back to the Western hemisphere for some Thanksgiving wisdom from American essayist, Henry David Thoreau:

“I am grateful for what I am and have. My thanksgiving is perpetual. It is surprising how contented one can be with nothing definite—only a sense of existence… My breath is sweet to me. O how I laugh when I think of my vague indefinite riches. No run on my bank can drain it, for my wealth is not possession but enjoyment.”

If you are familiar with Thoreau’s writing and philosophy, you might not be surprised that he was perfectly content living in a small, rustic cabin in the woods, where he wrote his famous book, Walden.
Another great American nineteenth century essayist, who was also Thoreau’s friend and mentor, had similar views on the art of giving thanks:

“Cultivate the habit of being grateful for every good thing that comes to you, and to give thanks continuously. And because all things have contributed to your advancement, you should include all things in your gratitude.”

Don’t just be thankful for the big things that come to you in life; be grateful for everything that brought you to where you are now. Of course, it would be difficult to rattle off every single event in your life that deserves thanks, but Emerson suggests giving thanks continuously, which can be formed as a habit and practiced throughout the year, not just on a holiday.

In reflection of all these quotes from thousands of years of wisdom, one can draw from them an underlying theme that lies deeper than that of thanksgiving and contentment. The fact that these ideas and philosophies have been practiced for millennia, across a range of religions and philosophies in all parts of the world, demonstrates how central they are to the well-being of all human beings.

Yes, eating food and having drinks with friends and family can be part of a wonderful holiday celebration, but don’t forget how fortunate you are to celebrate these things in the first place! Most important, Thanksgiving is a time to be happy but in the truest sense of the word, which is to be content with what you have now. Happy Thanksgiving!

Kent Thune is thankful for his wife, Angie Thune, his two sons, and for his and their health. Everything else is extra. Thune is the owner of a Hilton Head Island investment advisory firm, Atlantic Capital Investments, and is personal financial counselor to service members on Parris Island. You can follow his musings on mind, money and mastery of life at or on Twitter @ThinkersQuill.

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