When many of us think about Thanksgiving, what we think of is turkey, friends, family, traditions, football, shopping, Black Friday and Cyber Monday — and that moment just before the turkey is carved and everyone is gathered together.
Once a year we all gather around the table and the head of the gathering typically says a few words about what there is to be thankful for, and around some tables each guest has a chance to add their words of gratitude. And then on to the feast!
The issue is, as author Brian Tracy describes it, an “attitude of gratitude” is far too important to be confined to a few holiday moments. It’s all too easy for us to focus mostly on the negative and easily adapt to the positive. It is how our brains are wired, to respond to threats first. Thousands of years ago, the predator hiding in the bush just ahead that wanted to eat us for their lunch needed to be the priority, not being thankful for the sunny sky. After a short while, we began to take the positive for granted — it just faded into the background of our busy lives.
It’s true we need to pay attention to the small and big problems in our lives. However, once we make problem-spotting and -solving the major priority, we can wind up paying little or no attention to the things that sustain, nourish and encourage our sense of a life well lived; our sense of well-being. It’s all too easy in the course of our daily affairs to neglect to focus on those things we’re grateful for, so we wind up looking at only the negative, the problem-filled half of life’s equation.
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Data and clinical experience have clearly shown significant benefits come from an “attitude of gratitude.” Those people who regularly focus on the positive aspects of their lives are both healthier and happier than their non-grateful counterparts.
We’ve all heard how important it is to count your blessings, but how many times do we really count them in a focused, mindful way that feels real? Each time we neglect to feel grateful, we are adding to our taking our blessings for granted instead of feeling and appreciating them.
So, what can we do to go against our natural inclinations to ignore the good parts of our lives?
We can practice developing an appreciation for what we do have in addition to all our problem-spotting. We can practice valuing those things that would become so precious if they were taken away. We can take time on a regular basis to feel how wonderful it is to see the beauty in a sunrise or the lightness infused in the smile of someone we love. We can share our gratitude with others, especially those who are so meaningful to our lives. We can write and tell them what they mean to us, or we can choose to keep a journal all with the goal of expressing our gratefulness and then experiencing it.
Going against our well-established ways is challenging, which is why it can be so difficult to keep up. The key is to change it up and not allow it to get stale. There are many ways to both express and experience our thankfulness and we are only limited by our creativity.
As we get ready to enjoy turkey, stuffing and all the trimmings — and possibly watch the game on TV — remember to look around and take joy in the moment. After all, it’s these moments that life’s all about.
Barry Nierenberg is an associate professor of psychology in Nova Southeastern University’s Center for Psychological Studies.