This time of year, we hear a lot about the importance of gratitude. It plays an important role in Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and other religious traditions. It’s also been recommended by philosophers from Cicero to Immanuel Kant, Adam Smith, and Jean-Paul Sartre.
More recently, it has attracted the attention of psychologists. Their research shows being more grateful can make us happier and more optimistic, improve our physical and mental health, strengthen our relationships, and even make us more successful at work.
This week in the U.S., we celebrate Thanksgiving, a holiday intended for us to give thanks for all the blessings in our lives. But for many of us, it’s more of a stressful event than a day of gratitude.
Picture this: it’s early on Thanksgiving morning, and you discover the turkey still hasn’t thawed. Once you finally wrestle it into the oven, you forget about the onions and celery you were sautéing until the smoke alarm goes off. Then you realize you didn’t buy the crystallized ginger you need to make the cranberry relish Grandma served every year. And you still have to deal with the mashed potatoes, the gravy, the green beans, the rolls… and on and on.
Hours later, the food is ready and the table is set, but Aunt Cindy still hasn’t arrived. She’s stuck in traffic again, and she’s bringing the pumpkin pies. You hear Uncle John and your sister Ann drowning out the Thanksgiving Day parade on TV with a vociferous argument about politics. You check your watch. Aunt Cindy is over an hour late. The food is getting cold, and the football game will start in less than an hour. Maybe you should start dinner without her. She’ll be here in time for dessert, won’t she?
Your Thanksgiving celebration will probably go more smoothly. But even when everything runs like clockwork and all the guests get along, it’s difficult to focus on what we’re thankful for. If you can’t think of anything, you can always try what my father said each Thanksgiving. He was thankful he wasn’t the turkey.
Your Thanksgiving day list may be much longer than that, but just being grateful one day a year doesn’t accomplish much. To receive the many benefits of gratitude, it needs to be woven into our daily lives. Telling people to be more grateful rarely accomplishes much, but there are many ways we can cultivate gratitude.
Mindfulness brings us into the present moment and helps us notice things we would otherwise miss, including many things that inspire gratitude. Savoring some of those positive things, even small things like a child’s smile, is a great gratitude booster. Bring all your attention to that smile and fully absorb those good feelings.
The religious traditions often use prayers, such as a grace before meals. Many non-religious people find value in secular graces and rituals. Keeping a gratitude journal has been proven to be effective in increasing gratitude and its many benefits. Neuroscientists have shown that writing a gratitude letter not only makes people more grateful; it changes brain activity up to three months later.
Like everything else, gratitude can be misused. Sometimes it’s tempting to use gratitude to avoid dealing with a serious problem. Barbara Ehrenreich argued in a piece in the New York Times that gratitude is often selfish.
But researchers like psychologist Robert Emmons point out grateful people are more helpful, compassionate and generous. Brother David Steindl-Rast believes not only can gratitude enhance our lives, it can transform our world.
One simple way you can act on your gratitude today (and many other days) is to Share the Meal. With a tap on your smartphone, you can share a meal with a hungry child in places like Haiti or Bangladesh. And I’ll be grateful if you share your thoughts in the comments below.