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Power of Gratitude: Giving Thanks

Thanksgiving is the time to focus on gratitude, giving and the tradition of sharing. Gratitude has the power to heal, energize and give hope.

Fall Traditions

I love the holiday's link to the harvest, American history and, of course, the food and autumn colors.

But it’s the notion of giving thanks that makes me pause, reassess and reaffirm. I find it refreshing and grounding.

Gratitude: "An Affirmation of Goodness in Our Lives"

In addition to the feast, each year, we prepare a list of readings for our Thanksgiving guests, with a focus on gratitude, giving and the tradition of sharing the Earth’s bounty with family and friends.

In pursuit of this notion, I inevitably land at the work of Robert A. Emmons, Ph.D., founding editor-in-chief of The Journal of Positive Psychology and a professor at the University of California.

Emmons defines gratitude as “an affirmation of goodness in our lives.” He notes that a grateful person is one who is able to receive and accept life with both its positive and negative experiences.

In other words, it is acknowledgement of the good that is blended into our lives, while being better equipped to acknowledge what doesn’t work so well.

Based on his writing and other scientific research on happiness and gratitude, here are a few things worth sharing:

  • Gratitude has the power to heal, energize and give hope.
  • People who speak in grateful terms tend to smile more and use words such as giving, abundance, satisfaction and connectedness.
  • Keeping a journal of things that make you grateful for only three weeks leads to better sleep, fewer physical ailments, goal attainment, higher productivity and energy, and an upbeat attitude.
  • Children who keep gratitude journals and practice gratitude exercises display more positive and healthy attitudes toward family and school.

Talk With Friends and Family

To cultivate gratitude in your family, allow daily time for discussion and reflection to pinpoint what makes each person happy. Telling family stories points to tradition, personal abundance and teaches coping skills that become deeply ingrained.

Hearing stories about relatives who graciously dealt with austerity during the Depression can help a family think about strategies for dealing with current financial uncertainty, experts say. There's wisdom in shared stories, even your "family" doesn't share NA.

Start a Gratitude Journal

Scott Strader, a local psychologist, directs the Counseling Center at Eckerd College. He is a fan of the work and research of Emmons. Strader also recommends keeping a gratitude journal, offering these tips:

  • Carve out time each day to write in your journal. (Strader says doing it over coffee or cereal helps change your mindset as you orient yourself to the day, but any time that works should become part of your routine.)
  • Start small - maybe you’re grateful for a good night of sleep

Welcome New Traditions

As for holidays, Strader recommends establishing your own traditions.

“We each have a level of control and can use those traditions that appeal from our family of origin,” he says. “I also encourage students to feel free to start their own traditions,” he says.

These tips are part of a strategy to help change the way we think about holidays and what may be missing in our lives, toward a focus on what we have and can celebrate.

My own father referred to people who could only see the glass half empty as suffering from “poverty of soul.” I think he was on to something. That’s why it’s interesting to see a scientific study showing the relationship between happiness and gratitude. It makes it even more puzzling to note the intrusion of Black Friday ever closer to a holiday dedicated to giving thanks for what we already have.

Black Friday: "A Reason to Shop" or "Intrusion on Thanksgiving"?

Experts say that shopping may actually be preferable to family time for some. Yet it will not fill a deep personal need, and reflection may offer more long-term fulfillment.

Carol Osborne teaches marketing in the College of Business at the University of South Florida and is fascinated by the intrusion by retailers into our annual day of giving thanks. A former vice president of marketing at Cox Media, she acknowledges a certain segment of the population may pursue shopping to avoid reflection and gathering with others. But she cautions that consumers have the power to stop the insanity.

“As corny as it sounds, put the stuffing ahead of the stuff,” she quips. “Don’t get caught up in the hype of perceived value.”

Like many, Osborne looks forward to a day off to celebrate a quintessential American holiday without much interruption.

“Isn’t it so much more important to think about gratitude and gathering?" she asks.

Yet she is also intrigued by the creep of retailers into our break from routine on the third Thursday in November.

“Consumers – and retailers have a choice,” she says. “I liken it to the pressure put on fast food companies to include healthier options," says Osborne. We can say no to the hype and societal pressure and protect our Thanksgiving holiday.”

And although it is tough for many to think about gratitude in a year that has been an economic roller coaster, the real value may come from within. Gratitude for the small things we each have seems to have emotional and physical payoffs. That's especially helpful in uncertain times.

Start a Conversation

Even if you’re spending the holiday alone, why not launch your own gratitude project? Starting this week, record those things for which you are grateful, avoiding repetition of any one item. Or write a letter thanking someone who was kind to you. Then spread the concept by encouraging others to do the same.

A little reflection on the seemingly small but good things might just help each of us start living well. Thank you to our loyal readers and Happy Thanksgiving!

Please feel free to post a comment about why you feel grateful.

Margie Sanfilippo November 21, 2012 at 07:54 PM
Thank YOU, Scott Strader, for being awesome! :)
Cherlene Willis November 21, 2012 at 09:04 PM
I LOVE the idea of a gratitude journal! Always love reading Judy's columns! Thanks again for the great advice in this "Living Well" piece! - Cherlene
Lisa Ryan November 22, 2012 at 03:07 PM
I like the idea of "putting the stuffing before the stuff." We all have the opportunity to share quality time with friends and family today - so why not do that instead of racing through stores with a bunch of strangers?

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