On this national day of thanks, social media sites are awash in expressions of gratitude.
Even at a time when more than 250,000 Americans have died of the coronavirus, grateful citizens still have been eager to list publicly many of the good things in their lives — from parents, grandparents and children to pets, books, sunsets and even the feeling of weightlessness in the water.
As the popular writer and speaker Brené Brown says in her various presentations, “In my 12 years of research on 11,000 pieces of data, I did not interview one person who had described themselves as joyful, who also did not actively practice gratitude. ... I went into the research thinking … if you are joyful, you should be grateful. But it wasn’t that way at all. Instead, practicing gratitude invites joy into our lives.”
Indeed, giving thanks is an article of faith in numerous religious traditions, including Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism.
This year, observers might note an unusually large number of social media posts with the hashtag #GiveThanks.
That’s because President Russell M. Nelson proposed in a Nov. 20 video message to those in the 16.5 million-member Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that they use Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other platforms as a kind of gratitude journal — posting daily for a week.
Nelson, considered a prophet, seer and revelator by millions of Latter-day Saints around the world, said he believed that “counting our blessings is far better than recounting our problems,” even amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Nelson’s 11-minute video, which has reached millions worldwide since it was released, galvanized hundreds of thousands of church members (including apostles and other top leaders) to share their thankfulness with the prescribed hashtag.
“Working together,” Nelson said, “we can flood social media with a wave of gratitude that reaches the four corners of the earth.”
And flood they did.
On the first day, most Latter-day Saint posters mentioned loved ones, family and friends in typical, if sometimes overly sentimental, rhetoric.
[Listen to the “Mormon Land” podcast: A therapist explains how and why giving thanks is healthy — even amid COVID.]
But by the second, third and fourth days, however, members of the Utah-based faith were reaching further and deeper for items, people and experiences that mattered to them: third grade teachers, woods for hiking, nose jobs, breathing, technology, a broadcast journalism degree, bus drivers, employment, yoga, stepchildren, Robert Alter’s translation of the Old Testament, gigantic grocery stores, a Heavenly Mother coloring book, marshmallows in hot chocolate, the ability to cover the house in lights without injury.
Some were real, some funny, most heartfelt.
Then came the pushback.
Masking the message
Though they appreciated the importance of expressing gratitude, some critics were irked that so many Latter-day Saints waited to do so until their church president gave them the directive.
Others criticized the church president for using his video pulpit to preach the “healing power of gratitude” rather than giving a directive about the raging cases of the virus.
Social media posts, no matter how thoughtful, don’t end a global pandemic, Tamsen Maloy, a freelance journalist living in Centerville, wrote in a Salt Lake Tribune op-ed. “And when a significant number of church members don’t follow COVID-prevention guidelines, a talk about gratitude is cold.”
In his video message, the 96-year-old Nelson, a renowned heart surgeon before devoting himself to full-time ministry, did not issue a mask mandate, but he did speak of his concern about COVID-19 and the scientists who were working on a vaccine to prevent its spread.
“As a man of science, I appreciate the critical need to prevent the spread of infection,” he said. “I also honor the devoted service of health care professionals and grieve for the many whose lives have been upended by COVID-19.”
The video showed people putting on and wearing masks, which medical experts have said help greatly in preventing the spread of the coronavirus.
Others complained that the posters were too braggy, lauding their “perfect” family and impressive religious adherence, leaning into a kind of self-righteousness.
“This campaign appeals to people’s most selfish instincts — to broadcast their high points and show how devout they are,” a woman wrote on Facebook. “We can express how grateful we are for the good in our lives in private. This is just exhibitionism posing as gratitude.”
Psychologist Julie de Azevedo Hanks, who is a Latter-day Saint, offered some advice to her fellow posters:
• Lose the guilt and include intangibles.
• Center on Jesus.
• Be authentic and “avoid painting an unrealistic picture.”
• Recognize privilege.
• Be sensitive to others and don’t imply God loves you best.
• Check your motives. “Is it humble brag or one-up, or sincere gratitude?”
Even with good intentions, though, is it possible to celebrate all that you have, without giving pain to those who have less?
‘Not a competition’
The moment Nelson made his request, Mormon historian Ardis Parshall knew her social media feeds would be flooded by “pictures and words of gratitude for loving spouses and happy children, posed in large shiny rooms or in exotic travel destinations.”
Parshall, who lives in Salt Lake City, has never been married and has no children.
“I don’t have and will never have what so many of you are posting your gratitude for,” she wrote. “Doesn’t matter. I can be happy that YOU are happy. And I trust that you will be happy for my more modest gratitude, should I post something about the love of a cat or the friends who bring me groceries.”
Gratitude, she concluded, “is not a competition.”
That willingness to be happy for others is a crucial part of gratitude, according to Kristine Haglund, former editor of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, in an email.
“There are not many universally distributed blessings — almost anything we are thankful for may be something someone else lacks,” noted Haglund, who lives in St. Louis. “If we can only express gratitude or joy that will not cause anyone pain, we make ourselves islands, cut off from speaking of the things that matter most to us. Bearing one another’s burdens is a relentlessly grim duty if we cannot also learn to share each other’s joys.”
She shares the frustration of those who say a hashtag “doesn’t seem like enough to meet the enormous and frightening challenges of the moment, and it is true that there’s sometimes a fine line between publicly expressing gratitude and gloating.”
But Haglund also recognizes that “the difficulty we have in suspending cynicism shows just how desperately we need the baby step of starting to be open and trusting of each other in small ways.”
Latter-day Saints,” she said, “may need some contrived exercises in vulnerability to push us along.”
As Brown, the popular speaker and social work research professor at University of Houston, repeats often, it is not just the occasional expression of gratitude that changes lives, but the practice and discipline of cultivating a deeper sense of appreciation and wonder.
Creating a balance
In his video, Nelson lays out some of his own losses and agonies — his first wife who died suddenly and two daughters lost to cancer.
The pandemic is “only one of many ills that plague our world, including hate, civil unrest, racism, violence, dishonesty and lack of civility,” Nelson noted. While gratitude does not “spare us from sorrow, sadness, grief and pain ... it provides us with a greater perspective on the very purpose and joy of life.”
Kristine Anderson, a stay-at-home mother of four who is an independent Mormon studies scholar in Rexburg, Idaho, sees gratitude and mourning as interwoven.
In response to Nelson’s suggestion, she posted a quote from psychotherapist Francis Weller: “The world of the mature person is to carry grief in one hand and gratitude in the other and to be stretched large by them. … If I carry only grief, I’ll bend toward cynicism and despair. If I have only gratitude, I’ll become saccharine and won’t develop much compassion for other people’s suffering. Grief keeps the heart fluid and soft, which helps make compassion possible.”
Anderson happened upon the quote in 2019, when she found herself unexpectedly pregnant after doctors had advised her against having more children, given her lupus, postpartum depression and degenerative disk disease.
She was “already at her limit, caring for 1-year-old [in vitro fertilization] twins,” and a teenage daughter, and it would delay her plans to return to school.
“As I adjusted to my new reality, I made sure not to force myself into acceptance and joy — I allowed myself to feel grief and sorrow for what I lost and the story I was giving up,” the Latter-day Saint mom said. “I asked people to send their congratulations to my husband until I could hold them with gratitude. In the middle of that, I found this quote in an evangelical group for faith reconstruction (Evolving Faith). It spoke exactly to what I felt I was experiencing.”
On the day of her new baby’s blessing, Anderson “took the opportunity to bear my testimony of how applying that quote during that year had strengthened me and allowed me to process very complicated feelings and hold both dualities of my situation.”
The quote now has been shared by Latter-day Saints all over social media.
Appealing to ‘our better angels’
Patrick Mason, head of Mormon history and culture at Utah State University, initially was skeptical about what Nelson might say in his promised video.
Would the Latter-day Saint prophet “lay down the law on masks?” he wondered.
While watching Nelson’s presentation, though, it became evident that it wasn’t going to be that, and Mason found himself “deeply touched by the message.”
It was powerful and important, he said, for a global religious leader “to call us back to virtue, to call us to be our better angels.”
In the speech, Nelson acknowledged that the gratitude exercise was not going to solve all the country’s divisions and hatreds, but it was something that could be done.
“I was pleasantly surprised at the way it resonated with me as a listener and believer,” Mason said. “I was not surprised, but disappointed, that just like everything else, his request has become divisive and politicized.”
Whether or not you believe in God, gratitude is “a universal value,” he said. Nelson’s proposal should have been “universally embraced, rather than the subject of sarcasm and snark.”
Top Latter-day Saint leaders are concerned about “political rhetoric” and hesitate to “dive in and specifically identify groups that are especially egregious so as to be seen as partisan,” the scholar said. “This might have been a really tactical way [for Nelson] to intervene in the nastiness of postelection social media.”
Religion is here “to lift up and cultivate the best parts of us,” Mason said, “to live in harmony with other people, creation and with ourselves.”
COVID-19 has forced us all “to retreat into ourselves,” this effort is pushing us, he said, “to think bigger and broader than that.”
The “tricky part” is doing it on social media, a platform made to “show off,” he added, and where there also is a constant urge to assess and worry about motive and impact. Knowing that you are not doing it perfectly might also paralyze potential posters.
On the whole, isn’t it better to strive to profess and show gratitude, Mason wondered, than not to try at all?