If the only prayer you ever say in your life is thank you, it will be enough. Meister Eckhart
The Thanksgiving holiday began, as the name implies, when the colonists gave thanks for their survival and for a good harvest. I can only imagine what it was like to have lived through those early days in our country with much loss of life, sickness, hunger and fear. Those colonists didn’t have the research we have today that spouted the many benefits of expressing gratitude, but they did have faith. Their belief in a higher power reminded them that gratitude was an imperative, not an option and so Thanksgiving was born.
There are only two contemporary accounts of the 1621 Thanksgiving: This is Edward Winslow's account, which he wrote in a letter dated December 12, 1621. The complete letter was first published in 1622.
Our corn [i.e. wheat] did prove well, and God be praised, we had a good increase of Indian corn, and our barley indifferent good, but our peas not worth the gathering, for we feared they were too late sown. They came up very well, and blossomed, but the sun parched them in the blossom. Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.
Thanksgiving wasn't made an actual holiday until much later. Here's a fun video about the history of the holiday.
This week can be an experiment in practicing gratitude. Will you try it? Maybe you’re already a champion at this expressing of thanks - but me, I need a practice to raise the bar. I must admit, I take people and things for granted A LOT! My life is really pretty comfy and I have been blessed over and over again. I really should be expressing my gratitude more abundantly. This will be good for me.
Here’s what I have learned from some of the leading researchers and their studies of gratitude. (They must know, right!)
The word gratitude is derived from the Latin word gratia, which means grace, graciousness, or gratefulness (depending on the context). In some ways gratitude encompasses all of these meanings. Gratitude is a thankful appreciation for what an individual receives, whether tangible or intangible. With gratitude, people acknowledge the goodness in their lives. In the process, people usually recognize that the source of that goodness lies at least partially outside themselves. As a result, gratitude also helps people connect to something larger than themselves as individuals — whether to other people, nature, or a higher power.
In positive psychology research gratitude is strongly and consistently associated with greater happiness. Gratitude helps people feel more positive emotions, relish good experiences, improve their health, deal with adversity, and build strong relationships.
People feel and express gratitude in many ways. They can apply it to the past (retrieving positive memories and being thankful for elements of childhood or past blessings), the present (not taking good fortune for granted as it comes), and the future (maintaining a hopeful and optimistic attitude). Regardless of the inherent or current level of someone’s gratitude, it’s a quality that individuals can successfully cultivate further.
Two psychologists, Dr. Robert A. Emmons of the University of California, Davis, and Dr. Michael E. McCullough of the University of Miami, have done much of the research on gratitude. In one study, they asked all participants to write a few sentences each week, focusing on particular topics.
One group wrote about things they were grateful for that had occurred during the week. A second group wrote about daily irritations or things that had displeased them, and the third wrote about events that had affected them (with no emphasis on them being positive or negative). After 10 weeks, those who wrote about gratitude were more optimistic and felt better about their lives. Surprisingly, they also exercised more and had fewer visits to physicians than those who focused on sources of aggravation.
Another leading researcher in this field, Dr. Martin E. P. Seligman, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, tested the impact of various positive psychology interventions on 411 people, each compared with a control assignment of writing about early memories. When their week’s assignment was to write and personally deliver a letter of gratitude to someone who had never been properly thanked for his or her kindness, participants immediately exhibited a huge increase in happiness scores. This impact was greater than that from any other intervention, with benefits lasting for a month.
Of course, studies such as this one cannot prove cause and effect. But most of the studies published on this topic support an association between gratitude and an individual’s well being.
Other studies have looked at how gratitude can improve relationships. For example, a study of couples found that individuals who took time to express gratitude for their partner not only felt more positive toward the other person but also felt more comfortable expressing concerns about their relationship.
Managers who remember to say “thank you” to people who work for them may find that those employees feel motivated to work harder. Researchers at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania randomly divided university fund-raisers into two groups. One group made phone calls to solicit alumni donations in the same way they always had. The second group — assigned to work on a different day — received a pep talk from the director of annual giving, who told the fund-raisers she was grateful for their efforts. During the following week, the university employees who heard her message of gratitude made 50% more fund-raising calls than those who did not.
There are some notable exceptions to the generally positive results in research on gratitude. One study found that middle-aged divorced women who kept gratitude journals were no more satisfied with their lives than those who did not. Another study found that children and adolescents who wrote and delivered a thank-you letter to someone who made a difference in their lives may have made the other person happier — but did not improve their own well-being. This finding suggests that gratitude is an attainment associated with emotional maturity.
Gratitude is a way for us to appreciate what we have instead of always reaching for something new in the hopes it will make us happier, or thinking we can’t feel satisfied until every physical and material need is met. Gratitude helps us refocus on what we have instead of what we lack. And, although it may feel contrived at first, this mental state grows stronger with use and practice.
Here are some suggestions to cultivate gratitude on a regular basis:
Write a thank-you note. You can make yourself happier and nurture your relationship with another person by writing a thank-you letter expressing your enjoyment and appreciation of that person’s impact on your life. Send it, or better yet, deliver and read it in person if possible.
Make a habit of sending at least one gratitude letter a month. Once in a while, write one to yourself.
Thank someone mentally. No time to write? It may help just to think about someone who has done something nice for you, and mentally thank the individual.
Keep a gratitude journal. Make it a habit to write down or share with a loved one, thoughts about the gifts you’ve received each day.
Count your blessings. Pick a time every week to sit down and write about your blessings — reflecting on what went right or what you are grateful for. Sometimes it helps to pick a number — such as three to five things — that you will identify each week. As you write, be specific and think about the sensations you felt when something good happened to you.
Pray. Anyone can use prayer to cultivate gratitude.
Meditate. Mindfulness meditation involves focusing on the present moment without judgment. Although people often focus on a word or phrase (such as “peace”), it is also possible to focus on what you’re grateful for (the warmth of the sun, a pleasant sound, etc.).
This week try with me this awesome gratitude experiment. Let it be an exploration into how well we express gratitude in our lives and where there is room for improvement. We are all works in progress after all!
This Thanksgiving week let me just express my gratitude to you. Thank you for caring about what I have to say, for listening to the podcast and joining me in trying to make this world a little happier and healthier. I am grateful for you.
Here is a Simple Gratitude Meditation:
Find a comfortable seat with the spine elongated.
Notice the body and the external sensations, temperature of the air, noises in distance and nearby.
Take some long slow deep breaths through the nose.
Make the exhale longer than the inhale and hold at bottom.
Be grateful for this breath.
Experiencing gratitude connects us with the heart and the present moment.
Inviting sensations of gratitude allows for happiness.
Notice the heartbeat and be grateful for each one.
Bring awareness to the eyes and appreciate the ability to see the beauty of life.
Notice the ears and the sounds that move us and cheer us and motivate us.
Appreciate the mouth and tongue for the ability to taste every amazing flavor that food has to offer.
Feel the breath as it enters the nose that allows for this smooth comforting breath and the ability to experience the aroma of food, freshly folded laundry, the sweetness of a baby.
Check in with the body and notice if there has been a shift as we have moved into a more grateful state.
Observe this state being aware that everything is impermanent and states do change but we can always drop back into this place of gratitude with as little effort as one conscious breath.
Enjoy this moment of gratitude for as long as you wish and then go on about your day.