When I began writing this in the early days of November, I had no idea where the month would take us. I could not have anticipated the terror that would capture our attention, turn our stomachs, and break our hearts. It is difficult, as we hunker down with worry, to consider thanks-giving. Is it possible, I thought, that this is just not the time to suggest or consider gratitude? But this year, as our black Friday is not just filled with sales, but with sadness, maybe a consideration of what gratitude is, and how it impacts us, is exactly what we need.
With the advent of the field of positive psychology in the 1970s came the recognition that rather than researching deficits, we would be well served to study how, when, and why some people thrive, even in challenging conditions. Positive psychology research has uncovered an array of behaviors, beliefs and character traits that strongly correlate with well-being. In the various lists of these traits now in circulation, gratitude and thankfulness are present in virtually every one.
Gratitude from the Latin gratia, which can mean grace, graciousness, or gratefulness, can be defined as a thankful appreciation for a gift or service received. It has alternately been described as an emotion, virtue, coping response, habit, character trait or way of life. However we define it, gratitude is clearly a multi-layered phenomenon that includes both acknowledging the good in one's life and recognition of the source of this goodness as external to ourselves.
To understand why pundits, psychologists, educators, and others are endlessly encouraging thanks-giving, you need only consider its well documented benefits. In the classic study by Emmons and McCollough, one group of individuals was asked to write daily about things for which they were grateful. The other group wrote daily about current irritations. At the end of 10 weeks, the grateful group was more optimistic about life, and the benefits expanded to seemingly unrelated domains. Martin Seligman, a pioneer in happiness research, found that asking individuals to write a weekly letter of thanks to someone who they had not yet recognized for their helpfulness resulted in a huge and somewhat enduring boost in their happiness scores.
What is the mechanism that grows happiness out of gratitude, and suggests it as a potent pill for today's ills? I'll offer a personal example of what giving thanks can do to us. I am standing in line for hotel check in on a holiday weekend in a packed tropical resort. Like the guests in front of me, I am still in my Northern clothing, itching to get into my room and some flip-flops.
I am tired from multiple lay-overs and not in the greatest of moods. I overhear interactions with clerks, each guest more demanding or irate than the next, examples of the worst behavior characteristic of big city folk. My turn arrives and I say to the clerk, genuinely embarrassed by my compatriots, "thank you for your patience with all of us - not everyone from my city is like this." I am repaid with a smile and a whispered "thank you, you just made my day." My mood shifts. I am no less hot, tired, or antsy, but interestingly, I feel so much better knowing that my giving thanks made someone else feel better.
Giving thanks changes us by changing our world view. Studies demonstrate that those who end each day by writing down three things for which they are grateful score higher on indicators of happiness, and experience lower levels of depression than those who engage in no such recollection. In attending to what, during any given day, is worthy of giving thanks, we shift our focus to the positive, we emphasize what we are blessed with, rather than that which is lacking in our lives. Optimism is another positive psychology trait that correlates with better mental and physical outcomes. So if giving thanks puts us into a more optimistic mindset, and that makes us healthier . . . why wouldn't we want to give thanks, whenever we can.
A few days ago I witnessed another thanks-giving benefit. At a conference the catering wait staff was so efficient that no sooner had you finished than they cleared your table. When a waiter cleared our dinner remains, one of my colleagues interrupted our conversation to say "thank you." With those two simple words, she communicated volumes. She said, we professionals sitting at these tables, we see you. You are people too. We had been privileged to be wined and dined at this conference. But a colleague's verbalized thank you helped us realize that our privilege could make us callous, render us blind to those around us.
In today's world there are many individuals or groups who have been rendered invisible, non-people. Being invisible, they are more vulnerable to abuse and victimization, suffering harm that results in neither protest nor action. If giving thanks can contribute, even in small ways, to our seeing and valuing every person, than it changes more than just us.
Thanksgiving, and giving thanks may not right all the world's wrongs. But it makes a real and important difference in us, and in the world. So, as I sit around our turkey-laden table, I will recognize my blessings, and express my gratitude to my family near and far. I will think about the goodness that exists in our lives. I know that will change how I feel on Thanksgiving day. More importantly, giving thanks will change who I am, and who we all are, and maybe even a little bit, it will heal our aching world, well beyond the turkey dinner.