Originally posted November 2010
It’s hard to believe that Thanksgiving is almost here in the US. While not all Americans observe this holiday, most of us will do the “traditional” thing of spending time with family and friends, eating a lot, visiting, reminiscing, maybe watching the Macy’s parade in the morning and a football game or two in the afternoon. Some of us will volunteer our time to help feed others in need. But all of us who do celebrate the day will at some point address it’s core concept: gratitude.
During challenging times such as our own – with economic hardship, bitter political division, seemingly endless wars and more – it can seem hard to be grateful. What do we have to be grateful for when so much seems so wrong, so bad, so impossible? But consider: When Abraham Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving to be an official holiday, the country was in the midst of the Civil War. Yet, Lincoln wrote,
In the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle, or the ship; the axe had enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years, with large increase of freedom.
In many respects, gratitude is about keeping perspective so you can count your blessings. Just because things aren’t perfect or even good doesn’t mean that everything is wrong or there is nothing to feel thankful for. As Gautama Buddha taught,
Let us rise up and be thankful, for if we didn’t learn a lot today, at least we learned a little, and if we didn’t learn a little, at least we didn’t get sick, and if we got sick, at least we didn’t die; so, let us all be thankful.
Over the past several years, there has been a growing amount of research into the health effects of gratitude. That there’s some psychological and spiritual benefit may be of little doubt. Most if not all of us have experienced the peace and calm that comes with being thankful – when someone has done something thoughtful for us or when we recognize the blessings in our lives, such as the people we’re honored to know and the experiences we’ve been fortunate enough to have. Psychologists who have studied gratitude have noted more specific effects, both mental and physical:
In an experimental comparison, people who kept gratitude journals on a weekly basis exercised more regularly, reported fewer physical symptoms, felt better about their lives as a whole, and were more optimistic about the upcoming week compared to those who recorded hassles or neutral life events (Emmons & McCullough, 2003). It doesn’t end there.
Participants who kept gratitude lists were more likely to have made progress toward important personal goals (academic, interpersonal and health-based). And there’s more. Young adults who practice a daily gratitude intervention (self-guided exercises) had higher levels of alertness, enthusiasm, determination, attentiveness and energy compared to the group that focused on hassles or thinking of how they were better off than others.
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Researchers have found that when we think about someone or something we really appreciate and experience the feeling that goes with the thought, the parasympathetic, calming branch of the autonomic nervous system is triggered. This pattern when repeated bestows a protective effect on the heart. The electromagnetic heart patterns of volunteers tested become more coherent and ordered when they activate feelings of appreciation.
There is evidence that when we practice bringing attention to what we appreciate in our lives, more positive emotions emerge, leading to beneficial alterations in heart rate variability. This may not only relieve hypertension but reduce the risk of sudden death from coronary artery disease.
Such research tells us that cultivating a grateful spirit is something worth striving to do on a daily basis, supporting our health and well being. This Thanksgiving Day would be an excellent time to start, carrying the good feeling with you through the holidays and into the new year. Perhaps practicing gratitude might help us make better progress in solving the big challenges of these difficult times, giving us even more to be grateful for in the long run.
My staff and I hope you have a wonderful Thanksgiving and a great start to the holiday season!