A widow and penniless at 34, she had five small children to rear. She resorted to what she knew and supported her family through sewing and writing poetry. And while that at first may seem a path to a long, hard life for a woman in the 1800s, hers was one of rags to riches, riches in every essence of the word.
Facing life with a good amount of spunk, she penned her first novel, Northwood, just five years later. It was a huge success. That led to the position as the first editor of The Ladies Magazine. Just short of a decade later she moved to Godey’s Lady’s Book¸ where her editorial skills were credited with making it the largest publication in America, with a 150,000 subscribers by the 1850s.
She went on to author two dozen books and hundreds of poems including the nursery rhyme, Mary Had a Little Lamb. She continued to write until she was 89, just two years before her death.
She was more than a woman of words, as she was the first to advocate for equal education for girls, the first to start day nurseries for working women, and the first to push the idea of public playgrounds.
Her life and works were more than gifts of inspiration, for they changed aspects of life to this day. And yet, while another one of her greatest contributions is recognized every year at this time, hers is not a household name. She was also the “mother” of Thanksgiving.
Sarah Josepha Hale believed we had too few holidays, writing, “Thanksgiving like the Fourth of July should be considered a national festival and observed by all our people.” For four decades Hale wrote thousands of letters petitioning statesmen near and far to proclaim the holiday. In an 1859 editorial, she wrote, “If every state would join in Union Thanksgiving on the 24th of this month, would it not be a renewed pledge of love and loyalty to the Constitution of the United States?”
At last in 1863, Lincoln issued the now famous Thanksgiving Proclamation. And while the spotty history of this day started in the 1700s, and was switched to a week earlier by Roosevelt in 1939 only to be restored to the fourth Thursday and declared a national holiday by Congress in 1941, it’s a day we celebrate because of the persevering Sarah Hale.
She saw a deep need for a holiday, a day that would redirect perspectives, provide healing and strengthen the bonds of community. It would provide a spiritual dimension for dealing with the realities of the civil war, a therapy steeped in goodness and celebration.
“There is a deep moral influence in these periodical seasons of rejoicing, in which whole communities participate. They bring out… the best sympathies in our natures,” she wrote.
Hale’s beliefs were founded on intuition, but today studies show her insights on the benefits of a day for giving thanks to be so true. Psychologists Robert Emmons of the University of California-Davis and Michael McCullough of the University of Miami have shown that regular feelings of gratefulness can actually improve our emotional and physical well-being.
Emmons and McCullough’s ongoing Research Project on Gratitude and Thankfulness found that people who keep weekly gratitude journals have a better outlook on life, exercise more, experience fewer physical ailments, and make more progress on important personal goals.
Emmons, author of Gratitude, writes that gratitude is a deeper, more complex phenomenon, one that plays a critical role in happiness. It can measurably change people’s lives, he emphasizes.
“Practicing gratitude helps people extract the most out of life,” Emmons said, adding, “People can also experience an overall shift to a more benevolent view of the world. I think it’s kind of a spiritual shift for some people because it makes them more aware of life as a gift.”
When we reflect on a time when we were truly grateful, there’s a realization that the feelings, the thoughts and the energy that we experience are all encompassing. It allows no room for negativity. Fear, grief, envy, greed and sadness can’t penetrate our being. Gratitude elevates us above it all.
And so during this holiday season, count your blessings. Let this accounting take you to a new perspective and lift you up. Let it show you the truth in these words of wisdom:
“Give thanks for a little and you will find a lot.” The Hausa of Nigeria
As Sarah Hale experienced decades ago, and actor, comedian and economist Ben Stein today attests:
“I cannot tell you anything that, in a few minutes, will tell you how to be rich. But I can tell you how to feel rich, which is far better, let me tell you first hand, than being rich. Be grateful… It’s the only totally reliable get-rich, quick scheme.”
Anita Ancel is President of Ancelary Group, a Vermont firm that helps CEOs and their teams develop the attitudes and habits for ongoing success and happiness.