Let’s Not Wait Until Thanksgiving to Be Grateful
I’m sure we can all picture it, whether it has happened in our own lives or we’ve seen it in a movie or TV show…family members or friends gathered around the dinner table, turkey as the centerpiece, taking turns sharing what they are thankful for. Being grateful is often a tradition associated with the holiday of Thanksgiving but studies show that it would benefit us to demonstrate an attitude of gratitude more than once a year.
If you’re put on the spot about what you are thankful for, does it come easy for you? Or does it take you time to think of your response? Perhaps you may feel a bit awkward, and/or you first review the things that aren’t going well in your life. If you fall in the latter category, don’t worry you are not alone; our natural state as human beings is not positivity. Let’s back up…
Millions of years ago, when we were cavemen/women, our number one priority was survival. Therefore, the mechanisms of our brain were designed to help us do just that: survive. Keeping alert of the dangers was how a person made sure not to get eaten by a wild animal or not ingest a poisonous berry. Fast forward to today, most of us no longer have to worry about being eaten by a tiger on a day-to-day basis, yet our brains are still historic pieces of machinery that regularly scan for dangers in order to survive. As a result, a great deal of us may notice how we might have a tendency toward pessimism—focusing upon the situations that didn’t go as planned, the “problems” we need to fix, the things we have lost or don’t have, etc.
This all relates to the concept of negativity bias. Negativity bias is our tendency to place more emphasis on, well, the negatives. You find yourself dwelling on what you struggled with/need to work on when reviewing your yearly performance evaluation, while dismissing your strengths. You had an argument with a friend and that’s all you can think about the rest of the day. You complete a couple tasks on your to-do list but find yourself feeling down since you didn’t finish everything you planned. Any of this sound familiar? Don’t worry, you’re not alone.
Being grateful has been linked to numerous benefits related to happiness levels, self-esteem, emotional health, physical health, sleep, social support, career, and the list goes on.
The good thing is that our brains have the ability to change and adapt! It used to be believed that we were stuck with the brains that we were born with, but as research has continued, it was discovered that our brains are malleable. That malleability is referred to as neuroplasticity. Now as much as I wish I were a neuroscientist and understood all the inner workings of the brain, I don’t. But the bottom line is, we can train our brains. Will every experience change your brain? No. Will effects be immediate? No. It will take time and effort, just like most other things in life. Doing one bicep curl does not immediately lead to muscle development and your brain is no different.
Now, back to gratitude. Being grateful has been linked to numerous benefits related to happiness levels, self-esteem, emotional health, physical health, sleep, social support, career, and the list goes on. They have even been able to see changes within the brain through scans in relation to gratitude. Being grateful allows us to place emphasis on what we have, what’s going well, the positive things—to shift that negativity bias.
Still having trouble believing that gratitude makes a difference? Research has been done surrounding the happiness levels of Olympians with findings that those who won bronze medals are often happier than those who received silver. Why? Essentially, those who place 2nd tend to be thinking about how they did not get 1st; while 3rd place winners’ thoughts are more upon that they were able to place/are receiving a medal. As you can see, comparisons also play a role but this demonstrates how what we focus upon can make a difference in how we feel.
Here’s a piece from the Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book that further explores what we pay attention to:
“Then, one day in A.A., I was told that I had the lenses in my glasses backwards; “the courage to change” in the Serenity Prayer meant not that I should change my marriage, but rather that I should change myself and learn to accept my spouse as she was. A.A. has given me a new pair of glasses. I can again focus on my wife’s good qualities and watch them grow and grow and grow.
I can do the same thing with an A.A. meeting. The more I focus my mind on its defects—late start, long drunkalogs, cigarette smoke—the worse the meeting becomes. But when I try to see what I can add to the meeting, rather than what I can get out of it, and when I focus my mind on what’s good about it, rather than what’s wrong with it, the meeting keeps getting better and better. When I focus on what’s good today, I have a good day, and when I focus on what’s bad, I have a bad day. If I focus on a problem, the problem increases; if I focus on the answer, the answer increases.” (Acceptance Was the Answer)
As I mentioned earlier this will take some time and effort, but practicing gratitude can make a difference. The key is practice…our brains need repetition as well as attention in order to recognize it is important. So rather than waiting until Thanksgiving to share what you are thankful for, start by writing a gratitude list each day (yes, it is recommended to write it out and do it daily). Set time aside and not only identify what you are grateful for, but consider why; reflect upon the importance of that person or thing that you are thankful to have.
Another suggestion is to take time at the end of your day to write down 3 things that went well. This may seem difficult to do at first…our thoughts immediately go to the struggles we had throughout the day, but as we practice, it will become easier. As we essentially force ourselves to scan our day for good things, we are usually able to find something—it just tends to be clouded over those negative events, making it hard for us to pick out. Also, it doesn’t have to be something over the top incredible to make it to your list! Something like a smooth commute, an enjoyable meal, or the kids getting along; these all deserve some credit.
So what do you think—will you reserve being grateful for Thanksgiving, or employ an attitude of gratitude throughout the year? I challenge you to at least give it a try; after all, the research backs it up and it just may make a difference for you.
If you are interested in learning more about benefits of gratitude including some of the research referenced: