Next week is Thanksgiving, a holiday rooted in religious tradition and celebration of the harvest season. For some it’s a celebration of the four f’s – food, family, friends and football. And for others, the meaning of the holiday is found in its very name.
Giving thanks, that is how a lot of people express our celebration of Thanksgiving. Something I’ve become fond of is reaching out to friends to thank them for their friendship and for their presence in my life. It’s a meaningful time to do it, but we can all benefit from making this practice a lifestyle.
There is a difference between being thankful and expressing gratitude. Thankfulness is a reaction, especially when things are going well. We’re thankful for gifts, we are thankful for good weather, we can be thankful that we have plenty to eat. Thankfulness is a temporary response to a fleeting circumstance. Gratitude is appreciation under any circumstance. Maybe the weather is bad, but you’re grateful it isn’t worse. Maybe you didn’t get the raise you hoped for, but you are grateful you still have a job. Gratitude is a choice you make, a choice to be happy.
It takes practice because it’s a mindset, but that mindset can lead to a better life in general. Researchers at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine found that an attitude of gratitude can have rewarding effects on our health. They discovered that people with a family history of heart disease who had a positive outlook on life were one-third less likely to have a heart attack or experience a stress-related cardiovascular incident. And it doesn’t just extend to heart health. Their studies showed that negative emotions can weaken the immune system, but positivity can affect life satisfaction and protect against stroke and traumatic brain injuries.
The gratitude mindset begins with smiling and laughing. We’ve all heard that laughter is good medicine, and that is true. It increases oxygen-rich blood to the organs, it increases mood-enhancing hormones, and it decreases stress-inducing hormones. Gratitude enhances empathy, helps you sleep better, improves self-esteem, and makes you more resilient.
Let’s be clear, it’s not realistic to be happy all the time; that’s not what an attitude of gratitude is about. It’s a daily process. One way to be more grateful is to stop being picky. You won’t always have the best of things and you won’t always get what you want. Simply be happy with what you have. Some people find gratitude in volunteering, giving, and helping others. Outwardly expressing gratitude in the form of a text message, a letter or a phone call has been shown to increase happiness. And another way is remembering the bad. Think of things you’ve survived and challenges you’ve overcome, and you’ll find that where you are isn’t as bad as you think.
Some may scoff — understandably so — because it’s easier than it sounds. However, there is a field of psychology aptly named “positive psychology,” and more than 18,000 peer-reviewed articles support evidence that shows it works. Founded by psychologist Martin Seligman, positive psychology focuses on happiness, joy, love, compassion, and gratitude. According to his research, Seligman found that gratitude is a major contributor to a happy life. The more we foster gratitude, the happier we become.
Whether you’re just practicing for this month, or you want to make it part of your daily lifestyle, you can practice positive psychology by being purposeful in your actions. Make it a point to laugh more. Begin to visualize your successes. Anticipate, relish in, and make memories of your experiences. This can be done by being fully in the moment at events like family gatherings, or by doing something as simple as enjoying your favorite meal. Practicing self-compassion and not being so hard on yourself is a way to be more positive. Congratulate your friends on their successes, send thank you notes, or simply find meaning in the small things.
Studies in positive psychology suggest that we can improve our state of happiness by being more active, socializing more, being better organized, having fewer expectations of ourselves and others, being our authentic selves, valuing close relationships and just focusing on happiness. So, however you celebrate Thanksgiving, let an attitude of gratitude guide you all year long.
James Bass is the executive director of the Givens Performing Arts Center at The University of North Carolina at Pembroke. He can be reached at [email protected]