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Surrendering to Gratitude

Studies show that those who are grateful are happier.

CCO Creative Commons
Source: CCO Creative Commons

If you’ve been overwhelmed by all the tumultuous local, national, and international news lately, this week might be a good time to let it all go and simply indulge in some gratitude. We have much to be grateful for, but unfortunately, we sometimes focus too much on the opposite. In more recent years, however, I’ve seen a little shift, in that people are taking Thanksgiving more seriously and surrendering to the idea of gratitude. Maybe it has something to do with recent studies on happiness, which say that those who are the most joyous and content are also those who are the most grateful.

Ever since childhood, Thanksgiving has been my favorite holiday. It’s true that most passions take hold during our childhood. My mother wasn’t a gourmet cook, nor was she someone who was particularly eager for celebrations, yet once a year she vowed to celebrate Thanksgiving. These days, as a parent of three adult children and two grandchildren, I have become more inspired by my mother’s cherished tradition of celebrating Thanksgiving. What could be bad about a holiday that celebrates gratitude and focuses on good food and conversation without the unnecessary addition of materialistic considerations?

Although many holidays focus on gifts, the ones we share at Thanksgiving involve the pleasure of one another’s company, good conversation, and the simple joys of sharing.

Historically, Thanksgiving has been both an American and Canadian holiday whose origins lie in giving thanks for the harvest of the previous year. Interestingly enough, the history behind the celebration in each country is different. In Canada, there are two foundations for the celebration. Supposedly, explorer Martin Frobisher established the holiday in the 1500s as a way of being thankful for having found a northern passage to the Pacific Ocean. In the 1600s, the early French settlers in Canada initiated the celebration as a way to give thanks for a successful harvest.

In the United States, the tradition is traced back to the 1600s and the Pilgrims’ celebration of their first successful harvest in 1621. Similar celebrations were held throughout the Colonies. The last Thursday in November was proclaimed a national holiday in 1863, and Thanksgiving has been celebrated ever since.

My childhood passion for Thanksgiving included the classic Thanksgiving dinner of turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, and pumpkin and apple pies. A special treat on our Thanksgiving Day table was a chocolate turkey, usually wrapped in aluminum foil and painted with orange and black to resemble the big bird. The reward for finishing dinner was being able to unwrap the turkey for the hollow chocolate that we gobbled down as quickly as we had the delicious meal.

As an adult, I’ve begun the tradition of sending out gratitude cards and notes to those who have been special in my life during the previous year. Just acknowledging these individuals seems to make everyone feel good.

When my three kids were younger, our annual family tradition the week before Thanksgiving was to visit a local homeless shelter where people often lined up from early in the morning for a special feast. We would all serve them meals—some of us were involved in food preparation, and others actually served the guests. I remember that my children were amazed by the cross-section of individuals in our Orlando, Florida, community—from articulate businessmen in suits to illiterate alcoholics. There were no stereotypes, as there are no economic or class boundaries when it comes to suffering and poverty. It gave us great pleasure to help out these individuals and bring smiles to their faces for a few hours.

I’ve always viewed Thanksgiving as a good time to pause, reflect, and connect with loved ones or others who play a significant role in my life. Even as a journaling advocate and instructor, each November I habitually focus on gratitude journaling. Typically, this includes list-making, which is a good habit to engage in during the present moment, and then to look back on those entries years later as a way to offer a new perspective on life.

Now that my kids are in their 30s and parents themselves, they have less time for journaling, so in recent years, I’ve tried a new exercise. At the dinner table, we choose an “Appreciation Chair.” Each person takes a turn sitting in it, and then everyone else at the table writes down what they appreciate about that person. Each individual keeps the notes related to them, to be read later. I have heard that this exercise can have long-term effects. One mother said that these notations were found in her son’s pocket after he’d died on the battlefield during war. Supposedly, it gave him strength and power over the course of many years and served as an ongoing reminder of all his goodness. It is understandable how this could be a good pick-me-up during challenging times.

Here are some other positive things you might do during Thanksgiving:

  • Make a list of all those you’re thankful for, and people who’ve changed your life for the better.
  • At the Thanksgiving table, turn off your cell phone as a way of showing respect and appreciation for those you’re with on this day.
  • Continue your workout routine or try doing something similar with your guests, such as taking a walk, a hike, or a swim.
  • Make a list of accomplishments that made you proud during the past year, the highlights of 2017, and the goals you’d like to meet before next Thanksgiving.
  • Above all, cultivate an attitude of gratitude—not just on Thanksgiving, but each and every day of the year.
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