“A thankful heart is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the other virtues.” (Cicero)
This week, we Americans celebrate our most psychologically informed holiday: Thanksgiving. Although most of us associate this holiday with overeating and football, the meaning of Thanksgiving is much more profound.
Most of us recognize that our thoughts often are negative in tone. Consider, for example, the thoughts to which you personally most often return. If you’re like most people, many of these thoughts probably concern what you lack, what is in the way of your progress in daily strivings, and what could go wrong in your future. These kinds of thoughts contribute to stress, depression, anger, anxiety, addictive behaviors, and relationship problems.
A transformation often occurs when people learn to shift their thoughts from negative to thanksgiving. Although we only celebrate the holiday of Thanksgiving one day per year, we all would benefit from making mindfulness of the good in our lives a consistent lifestyle habit. This holiday week would be the perfect opportunity to try out some new practices that might move us in the direction of cultivating a lifestyle of thanksgiving. Some specific suggestions follow.
1. Express your thanks to someone who made a difference in your life.
In one study, Marty Seligman and colleagues had research participants take a week to write and then deliver a letter of gratitude to someone they never properly thanked. They found that depressive symptoms, on average, declined for 1 month after the event.
This week would be an excellent opportunity to apply this research. Think of someone who made a significant positive impact in your life that does not know how you feel and let them know in some meaningful way. Maybe this is someone with whom you’ll celebrate Thanksgiving. In this case, consider how you might take this person aside this weekend to thank them properly. Or, maybe it’s someone you won’t be near. Perhaps you can take some time to call or write this person this week.
2. Keep a gratitude journal.
Bob Emmons and his colleagues have conducted many studies where they randomly assigned people to daily or weekly record things in their lives for which they were grateful or thankful. Sometimes, participants were recruited specifically because they were struggling with a relatively uncontrollable health condition (such as cancer). Results show consistent psychological, physical, and interpersonal benefits from these practices, even when individuals were in the midst of experiencing a stressful life event.
A similar practice would be to keep a gratitude journal to counteract the negative thinking that naturally results from a frustrating situation. For example, if you are in a stressful (but not abusive) marriage, keep track of the good that you observe in your partner or relationship. If you are in a dissatisfying job that you can’t leave for the time being, record what you are thankful for in that work.
If you go shopping for holiday gifts this week, considering picking up a hardbound journal in which you can consistently record your thanks. Make it a habit to record what you are thankful for on a regular basis.
3. Savor the moment.
Related to thanksgiving is the notion of savoring. As discussed by happiness expert, Sonja Lyubomirsky, savoring involves being mindful of the meaningfulness and pleasure of the moment.
One idea for promoting mindfulness before a meal is to begin with some form of grace. If you have not engaged in this practice for a while, perhaps you can reinstate it this Thanksgiving. Ideally, this would involve a meaningful expression of heartfelt thanks, and not just a memorized prayer. For instance, consider the meaningfulness of the relationships you have with those present, the bounty of food, and the opportunity to gather together in a safe, comfortable shelter. If appropriate, tap into the broader religious and spiritual beliefs that those gathered share that nurture a sense of thanks. If this isn't right for you, consider having a moment of silence in which those present have permission to express thanks quietly in a way that is meaningful to them.
As you eat your Thanksgiving meal, attend to the pleasurable sensations of the feast. Really smell and taste the food. Engage yourself fully in the conversations with your loved ones. There is no reason to rush to clear the table and do the dishes. Enjoy the moment. Begin a tradition to make meal times a “technology free zone,” with no television or phones allowed. The football game can wait.
A closing thought about vulnerability.
Many of the above-mentioned thanksgiving practices may be difficult for some to implement because they require vulnerability to softer feelings. In particular, it may be difficult to openly express a sense of heartfelt thanks in the presence of others. However, as Brene Brown notes in her popular TED talk, vulnerability may be necessary for the connection that many of us deeply seek. Have the courage to be vulnerable, and this week may be one of the most meaningful Thanksgiving celebrations you’ve had in a long time.
Andy Tix teaches at Normandale Community College in Bloomington, Minnesota. Please also consider following Andy's blog on mystery and awe.
Emmons, R. A. (2007). Thanks!: How the new science of gratitude can make you happier.
Emmons, R. A. & McCullough, M. E. (2003). Counting blessings versus burdens: An experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 377-389.
Lyubomirsky, S. (2007). The how of happiness: A new approach to getting the life you want.
Seligman, M. E. P., Steen, T. A., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: Empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist, 60, 410-421.