Gratitude is no Platitude: Giving Thanks at Thanksgiving is Actually Good for You!
BY BOB AND JUDITH WRIGHT
If we want to reap the truly awesome physical, psychological, and social benefits of gratitude this Thanksgiving, let’s stop gorging on turkey, turn down the football game, and take a few moments to reflect on the harvest of the year and practice true gratitude.
The holidays are a time of thankfulness, togetherness, and joy. It’s a time when we reflect on our relationships with our family, friends, and loved ones. But it’s also a time when we get so wrapped up in the expectations and all the stressful hustle and bustle of the holidays that our gratitude becomes less genuine.
Suddenly we’re going around the table mumbling what we’re thankful for while eying up the savory stuffing and reaching for the wine glass. Thankfulness becomes lip service, rather than something that enhances our lives.
Why Thankfulness is So Good for Us
While “count your blessings” may sound like something your grandma would say (while you rolled your eyes), research is showing grandma was onto something. Cultivating an attitude of gratitude offers immense physical, psychological, and social benefits. Being grateful helps us become more optimistic, feel better about our lives, and increase our happiness!
For example, we were coaching a woman who said she wasn’t looking forward to her upcoming family gathering, even though she usually loved the Thanksgiving season. Her relationship with her extended family was strained, so she was concerned they would fall right back into their usual patterns of bickering and passive-aggressiveness. She was feeling anxious and worried about the impending stress, so we discussed what she could do to change the tone of the gathering.
She came up with the plan: she would write a note to every member of her family, telling them what she truly appreciated about each of them. She said, “My family might think it’s a little crazy—we’re not that type of family, but I’m going to give it a shot!”
Talk about a gamechanger! Those little notes transformed the whole interaction. She came back with a glowing report that the entire gathering was a huge success. The dinner had more meaning, appreciation, and connection. No one in her family thought it was weird at all—they were touched!
You see, Thanksgiving really is good for you. No, we don’t mean all the turkey, mashed potatoes, and pumpkin pie. It turns out actually giving THANKS is extremely beneficial to our wellbeing.
When we take time to acknowledge the goodness in our lives, it doesn’t just make us “feel better” temporarily. The benefits of gratitude run deep. Positive psychology research reveals that when we acknowledge the good in our lives, we experience a shift. We connect with something larger than ourselves. The practice of gratitude actually changes our brain, helping us develop new, stronger neural pathways geared toward happiness.
A few of the fantastic benefits of gratitude include becoming less materialistic and self-centered. Thankfulness makes us more optimistic and generous towards those around us. We become an example to others, and this change creates a ripple effect for our entire family!
Better still, studies show shifting to an attitude of gratitude helps us develop stronger immune systems. We experience fewer aches and pains, lowered blood pressure, better sleep, and better overall health (which is great for keeping us healthy during flu season, too). Our minds feel more alert, alive, and awake. We build stress resistance; we’re more resilient and relaxed, and we experience a higher sense of self-worth.
As if all that wasn’t enough, gratitude helps us in our job, as we increase our productivity, become better leaders, and get better at goal achievement. In our relationships, we become more helpful, generous, compassionate, and forgiving. Thankfulness makes us more social and outgoing (combating those holiday blues and feelings of loneliness). Grateful people are kinder to others and they experience healthier and deeper relationships!
Are you blown away yet? If not, here’s something that might do it. The benefits of gratitude even increase our lifespan! So, instead of relying on the turkey and squash for a healthy Thanksgiving, focus on gratitude!
Why We Often Struggle with Gratitude
With all these benefits, you may wonder why being grateful still feels like a struggle sometimes. It’s not your imagination—gratitude actually requires an intentional approach.
Humans possess a negativity bias. This bias means we’re predisposed to look for dangers and fears in life, instead of looking on the bright side. Now, this isn’t because humans are just generally negative for no good reason. Our negativity bias helps assure our survival.
Negativity bias has an evolutionary purpose. You see, if you were back in the caveman days, you would need to stay on alert in case a mountain lion was hiding behind a rock. Your senses were geared to identify anything that seemed alarming, out of place, or unstable, as they could indicate danger was nearby.
Fast forward to today. We aren’t looking out for mountain lions, but we’re still attuned to danger. We naturally scan for what’s wrong and what needs fixing in any given situation. This attentiveness is especially true when we’re under stress, like during the holidays and when we’re with family.
Think about the last time you received criticism from someone. Chances are, it stuck with you for hours—even days. Compliments, on the other hand, often roll off our back in a moment. Our brains are wired to stockpile memories of negative experiences faster than positive ones, so we avoid dangerous or harmful situations in the future.
We may hear nine positive comments and one negative, but it’s the lousy review that sticks. Positive psychologist Barbara Fredrickson, Ph.D., tells us we need three positive thoughts to counter every negative one that rolls through our mind. The more we practice shifting to the positive, the more we’re building resilience and perspective. We’re building up savings in our positivity account. Rick Hanson, Ph.D., psychologist, and best-selling author, also talks about the neuroscience of positivity. He says we’re like Velcro for the negative and Teflon for the positive. Everyone is primed to look for the holes. We must really savor positive comments for at least 10-20 seconds for them to make an impact. It’s not imagination—those positive compliments really do roll off our back unless we intentionally hold onto them and take them in.
When we go into our Thanksgiving dinner, we may focus on the one crappy comment from our uncle or that single snide remark from our sister. Those comments bring in the negativity and make our whole day feel frustrating. On the other hand, we can take a cue from couples counseling and build a foundation of goodwill and appreciation to shift the balance. For every fault we find with our significant other, we need to share at least three instances of goodness, gratitude, and appreciation to cancel it out.
Similar to our relationship with our spouse, our relationship with our family is often fraught with emotion. These connections are important to us and valued, so hurts cut deep. Rather than allowing it to color the entire day, we can train ourselves to look for the good, to experience goodwill, and to balance out our negativity bias.
In our book The Heart of the Fight, we discuss the common fights couples experience and how following the Rules of Engagement leads to more productive fights with positive outcomes. One of the rules is to assume goodwill—and it applies to our family interactions, too. Most of our family members WANT to get along with us. They want to connect around the Thanksgiving table. Our painful experiences motivate us to protect ourselves from future pain. But these experiences may also make us feel like negativity surrounds us. We can counter this natural negativity bias by assuming goodwill, internalizing the positive, and infusing our lives with gratitude.
A Great Time of Year for Reflection
Late autumn is a perfect time for reflection and introspection. We often think of the New Year as the time when we look back at the past year to see how far we’ve come. However, we’ve found Thanksgiving is an even more appropriate time to take stock.
Each Thanksgiving as a couple, Judith makes sure we take time to look at the “harvest” of our year. We review all our experiences throughout the past 12 months together. We look more in-depth than just the highlights, asking ourselves questions like, “How did we grow personally? How did we grow professionally?” and “What challenges came up and what strengths emerged over the past year?” This conversation sets the perfect stage for Christmas celebration, putting the year to rest and allowing us to move into the New Year with our goals, wishes, and resolutions. It helps us finish the year strong. Often our harvest from the past year fuels our vision for the year to come. We look at our bodies, our lives, our relationship, our family, and our career, and align the experiences we’ve shared to shape our vision.
Your life doesn’t have to be perfect to reap the benefits of gratitude. You can look back over your experiences—even the problems, hassles, and upsets—and find there are benefits from those experiences. When we reflect on the year, it doesn’t mean putting on rose-colored glasses, but we should identify the small amounts of goodness that come from each experience and encounter.
Savoring and appreciating experiences means letting them soak in. Feel the warmth, fun, excitement, and appreciation in the moment. Relish it. If others express gratitude to you or offer you a compliment, don’t brush it off. Bask in the warmth. Indulge your senses. Really taste the pumpkin pie—enjoy the spices and the creaminess, and luxuriate in its deliciousness! It’s all about being mindful of each positive experience, even the small ones, and basking in the goodness it brings to our lives.
This goodness may come from outside ourselves; it may come from other people, a generous world, or a higher power. When we look around, we see there is a great deal of beauty, kindness, and love surrounding us every day.
Practice looking for and attuning yourself toward goodness and appreciation. It’s always there, but we need to practice and brush up on our identification skills. Use Thanksgiving Day as a reminder that we should practice gratitude every day. When we do so, our brains will develop new, stronger pathways geared toward even more happiness!
For more ways to experience purpose and joy in your life, visit wrightfoundation.org. If you’re in the Chicago area, join us for an upcoming More Life Training, where you’ll connect with others on their transformational journey. Live a life of MORE today!
ABOUT THE AUTHORS – BOB AND JUDITH WRIGHT
“The Heart of the Fight: A Couples Guide to 15 Common Fights, What They Really Mean & How They Can Bring You Closer. Judith Wright and Dr. Bob Wright, are a husband/wife duo and Chicago-based relationship counselors. They are award-winning authors and trainers and have appeared on numerous TV and radio programs including ABC’s 20/20, Good Morning America, Oprah, the Today Show, the Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, Marie Claire, Better Homes and Gardens, and Vanity Fair. They are the co-authors of “The Heart of the Fight: A Couples Guide to 15 Common Fights, What They Really Mean & How They Can Bring You Closer.