Thanksgiving Day Gratitude
It seems the entire nation skips right to the December holidays after Halloween costumes are put away. Black Friday previews creep into early November. Wintery holiday commercials are aired beginning in October, which felt particularly jarring to me this year as we enjoyed a warm and sunny fall in the Carolinas.
By the time we reach Thanksgiving Day, we’ve been looking past it for quite some time, taking pictures for holiday cards, compiling wish lists, scoping out sales, listening to Christmas music, organizing parties, and putting up decorations.
I get it. Listening to Christmas music and putting up lights can be a bright, joyful contrast to the short, dark days brought on by Daylight Savings Time. For others, the bustle of holiday plans and preparation are less joyful, more stress-inducing, and overscheduled.
We push through the whole month of November and give our leftover energy to a holiday that can be an antidote to a busy December, a day marked by gratefulness and fellowship. Instead of giving and receiving presents, Thanksgiving is a day of giving and receiving presence. One way to be present is to see, really see, and appreciate the people and experiences that bring joy to our lives—practicing gratitude.
What is Gratitude?
The research defines gratitude as “the appreciation of what is valuable and meaningful to oneself and represents a general state of thankfulness and/or appreciation.” This conceptualization of gratitude includes both our individual and interpersonal experiences.
Gratitude is not about comparison or feeling better off than someone else, but about taking stock of the meaningful and positive aspects of our lives that we couldn’t have brought about in isolation. The range of our experiences can include being grateful for something as common as the sensory experience of drinking a strong cup of coffee to something as heartfelt as a surprise act of helpfulness from a friend.
“Gratitude has been shown to improve sleep quality and in turn, decrease symptoms of anxiety.”
Why Does Gratitude Matter?
Just like Thanksgiving, gratitude can easily be given the once-over. It’s sharing what we are thankful for, right? However, it’s more than a conversation prompt or nice quality to round out our moral profiles. I like to think about gratitude as a committed practice that reshapes the lens through which we view our experiences, improving our lives.
Gratitude, when practiced intentionally and purposefully is shown in research studies to improve mental, physical and relational health in a variety of ways:
Strengthened connections with others. Connectedness is a major protective factor against both mental and physical health concerns. When we express appreciation for and gratitude towards the people in our lives, we can reinforce the positive emotions we feel towards others and they in turn associate with us. At the core of each person is a desire to be seen for who we are—gratitude speaks to our need to be seen and appreciated. The result? We feel less isolated and have more opportunities for shared life experiences with others. The presence of this appreciation can also strengthen the marital bond and serve as a buffer for contempt and defensiveness in marriages.
Stress-reduction and psychological resilience. Who doesn’t want this during the holiday season? Gratitude cannot reduce the number of stressful events we encounter, but reframe the perspective through which we interpret and respond to those events. Anticipating stressful family dynamics at the table today? Add some lightness to your day with a personal game: Dr. Daley’s Thanksgiving Day Family Bingo Cards.
Builds contentedness, decreases entitlement. Happiness is fleeting. Due to a process called hedonic adaptation, the shine of reaching the next goal or experience we hope will bring satisfaction wears off. We are left searching for the next thing. Gratitude can help counteract the frustrating pursuit of happiness as we become more aware of the pleasures and opportunities of the present moment.
Slows us down. Perhaps the struggle to savor the Thanksgiving holiday is reflective of our struggle to step back and practice gratitude and presence during the rest of the year. Time will keep moving whether we stop to savor what surrounds us or not. Gratitude can help us both notice and remember our daily experiences, from the flower we found exquisite on a morning run to an afternoon spent unplugged with friends and family.
Better sleep and less worry. Gratitude has been shown to improve sleep quality and in turn, decrease symptoms of anxiety. The more grateful we feel, the better we sleep, equipping our nervous system to respond effectively to situations triggering anxiety.
Reduction of depressive symptoms. Unchecked, the brain prioritizes negative information over positive information, since it’s doing its job to keep us alive and look out for threats. This is especially true in the context of depression. Depressive thinking patterns can create a negative feedback loop, reinforcing negative information about ourselves and discounting positive information. An intentional gratitude practice can help break negative thought cycles and even create positive ones. Additional research shows that gratitude stimulates regions in the brain associated with dopamine, our feel-good neurotransmitter. A spike in dopamine registers as a reward in the brain and increases the likelihood we pursue that good thing again.
Since the brain is more likely to direct energy towards the negative, gratitude requires active practice. It takes time to build new connections in the brain and reinforce a habit of gratitude. Over time, that habit can become a state of being.
“Gratitude, when practiced intentionally and purposefully is shown in research studies to improve mental, physical and relational health”
In its simplest form, gratitude practice can involve mentally reflecting on your experiences each day. For some, visual and verbal representations of gratitude can make it more tangible. The same practice might not work for everyone, but these can be a good place to start:
- Thank you notes. Express your gratitude in the form of thank you notes, whether you intend to send them or not. Adding humor and creative decorations is encouraged. Jimmy Fallon anyone?
- Gratitude apps. Several apps allow you to log gratitude with both pictures and text entries, creating a beautiful feed for you to view. My favorite thing about this is these private gratitude feeds can serve as a contrast to everyone else’s highlight reel on social media feeds. When you find yourself scrolling through social media and playing the comparison game, open your gratitude app and revisit those things that add value and meaning to your life. Check out: Grateful: A Gratitude Journal and Mojo: More Than a Journal.
- Bullet journaling. Direct and to the point, bullet journaling involves listing the people and experiences for which you are grateful. It can be done in 5 minutes or less. No long expose required. There’s opportunity for developing creative daily, monthly, or weekly layouts for logging your gratitude. Regularly revisiting past entries can be a source of comfort and resilience on difficult days.
- Verbal affirmations. Share with the people in your life when you’ve appreciated their presence and support.
The calendar this year puts a little more space between Thanksgiving and Christmas, a space perfect to pause and do a gratitude check. Before you eat the last bite of pumpkin pie and hop up to decorate a tree, make a specific commitment towards growing your gratitude practice. How will you practice gratitude today, throughout the holiday season, and into the New Year? I’d love to hear in the comments below…you know I’ll be grateful!
Happy Thanksgiving from the Psych Bytes family to yours!