THE BLOG

Thanksgiving vs. Black Friday: Giving Thanks or 'Feeding Frenzy'

11/27/2013 05:53 pm ET | Updated Jan 27, 2014

Thanksgiving is an asset that has to be cultivated. Black Friday is its nemesis. The malls fill at midnight -- and many hours earlier -- with consumer stampedes and sporadic violence. The spirit of Thanksgiving is lost in the dust. Too bad, because gratitude is a wonderfully beneficial.

As distinguished University of California-Davis professor Robert Emmons has shown, pausing once a day for a few minutes to focus on the things we are grateful for increases positive mood by 20 percent. His research team has also demonstrated that gratitude journaling once a week over six weeks lowers depression levels in adolescents. Writing a thank you note creates calmness. Inviting everyone at the dinner table to mention the things they are most grateful improves positive communication. Grateful individuals tend to take more time for acts of kindness, and this in turn gives them hope. And as any etiquette maven will attest, a thankful individual tends to be well received in schools, communities, and workplaces, creating opportunities. What's not to like?

So we should be mindful about Thanksgiving and reaping the benefits, rather than focusing on the "feeding" frenzy of midnight "malling" (or perhaps, "mauling"). We should be thankful for the universe, for the arching sky and constellations on high; for lakes and rivers; for one another; for beauty in nature; for the talents we are given; for the hopes by which we are led; for the comforts and joys of homes and families and friends; for kids playing in fall leaves; and maybe for the season's first snow fall.

But Black Friday represses the spirit of Thanksgiving, crowding it out of mind and out of sight. It focuses the mind on that $200 pair of designer jeans that may provide a brief hedonic euphoria, but it fades so quickly. The more lasting forms of happiness are demonstrated by prominent psychologist and author Martin E.P. Seligman to come from immersion ("flow") in constructive activities and, as I have emphasized in my own long-term research into the power of altruism, from sticking with benevolent values that provide meaning over the course of a lifetime.

To be sure, at Black Friday's midnight madness, there will be the crowd-inspired clenched fists and the crushed bodies. Violence and callousness will break out. It will all add to the headlines in a world of drive by shootings and degradation.

Black Friday started with just a few retailers trying to get ahead of the competition. Now they all follow suit. They advertise on radio and TV, running roughshod over the one day in the year when we are setting aside time to give thanks -- and perhaps to provide meals for the less fortunate in our communities. Maybe retailers should put Black Friday back in the box next year, and for years to come.

The words of the 20th-century Hindu sage J. Krishnamurti come to mind: "It is no measure of health to be well-adjusted to a profoundly sick society." This kind of pursuit of happiness is near exhaustion for a lot of Americans. Judging from the epidemic of depression and anxiety that defines the current era, our materialism may be near collapse, propped up only by the thousands of psychiatrists busy medicating younger and younger people who are bottoming out in the cathedrals of consumerism.

The Roman philosopher Marcus Aurelius wrote, "Remember that very little is needed to make a happy life." In consumer cultures, it's still simple to be happy but difficult to be simple! Thankfulness frees us from the things that we do not need or even really want, but that we thought we wanted because we were comparing ourselves with others.

So let's give Thanksgiving a chance. Let's make a point of dwelling on whatever we are most grateful for as we go to school or to work, or before we take that first bite of a meal. Thanksgiving is an idea and a practice with high dividends for those who might be fortunate enough to own it long-term investments of the soul. It is a universal "law of life" that will stand the test of time. It confers a happiness worth having -- and no one gets trampled.