Special to the Tribune-Star
TERRE HAUTE —
No doubt, during Thanksgiving week Americans are in a thankful mood. Take away the national cue to give thanks, are we a thankful people the other 51 weeks of the year? Much suggests we take much for granted, that we assume the incredible affluence that characterizes the American lifestyle, that we feel entitled to the newest, the best and the most. We take our freedoms and the relationships in our life for granted.
The prevailing culture in the United States is “individualism.” And despite some who claim that individualism is dying or dead, my conversations with international students and with immigrants about their struggles to understand the individualistic American leads me to conclude individualism is quite robust.
“Individualism,” in short, refers to the exaltation of the individual person over the group, including family, church and state. A child learning the culture of individualism would learn such things as follow your own path, to do what you want, to follow your own interests. The epitome of individualist culture is for a person to do what they want, without regard to what others think. It is an ideology of self-sufficiency, economic independence, and self-determined values and morality. In short, it is the passionate pursuit of self-interest and those interests are determined selfishly.
Think about it. If you do it yourself, who do you thank?
It matters little about the facts on the ground whether we actually do it ourselves or we are dependent on a myriad number of others to achieve our self-interest. If we believe we did it ourselves, then does it matter? If we believe we build a successful company on our own, despite the taxpayer-paid-for infrastructure, public education of the company’s employees, and Social Security providing social insurance for their employees, who do we thank for the good outcomes? If we believe we did it ourselves, is there any need to thank anyone?
Radical individualists go so far as to view gratitude as superfluous. If everyone is just pursuing their self-interest, then a kindness or even what appears to be a “selfless” act is not that at all, but just another example of a person pursuing their self-interest. Do I need to thank someone who just did something for themselves and not for me? A child has no need to be thankful for parents because parents are just pursuing their self-interest. A radical individualist would not view Jesus Christ as giving himself up for our sins. Instead he was pursuing self-interest, he did it for himself, the forgiveness of our sins is just a residual benefit of his own radical pursuit of self-interest. It’s no different than the rich person who builds a grand home in the neighborhood enhancing the value of your home.
What about those who do show gratitude to others? Research suggests that showing gratitude can have measurable positive effects on people. Positive effects can be shown for mood, various hormones, pleasure-related neurotransmitters, the immune system, stress, heart health, blood pressure and blood sugar.
It seems like a good thing for people to show gratitude. It’s in one’s best self-interest with all those health benefits to show gratitude to those we feel thankful for. The trick it seems is to ignore the ideology of individualism, to recognize the inherent interdependent social basis and (at times selfless) cooperation that makes our world work, and show gratitude to those people who are important to us and reap the personal health benefits of doing so.
Give thanks to the important people in your life. Given the health benefits, nothing is more self-interested than being thankful and showing it.
Thomas L. Steiger is a professor of sociology and director of the Center for Student Research and Creativity at Indiana State University. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.