Thanksgiving has always been one of my favorite holidays. In fact over the years I’ve come to realize that gratitude is perhaps our most powerful and profound emotion. And that’s the only problem with Thanksgiving — by giving gratitude its one big day a year, do we run the risk of not giving it enough of our time and attention the other 364 days?
That would be a shame because gratitude isn’t just a courtesy, or a matter of good manners. It’s our gateway to grace. It’s no coincidence that gratitude shares the same Latin root — gratus — as the word grace. So in addition to a day of gratitude, we can choose to live in a state of gratitude — and thus in a state of grace.
We live in a stress-filled, sleep-deprived, burned-out world. In fact, for many, Thanksgiving itself is one of the most stressful days of the year. And that’s ironic, because the answer to Thanksgiving stress is right there in the word itself. Whenever we find ourselves in that stop-the-world-I-want-to-get-off mindset — including this week — gratitude is the brake lever. It gives us perspective and allows us to reset and recharge.
Though they didn’t have Thanksgiving, the ancients certainly knew the value of giving thanks. Cicero wrote that “gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues but the parent of all the others.” It took a few thousand years, but this wisdom has since been validated by a mountain of science. And we still haven’t reached the end of the list of what gratitude can do.
Robert Emmons, of the University of California, Davis, and Michael McCullough, of the University of Miami, are two of the foremost gratitude researchers. In one study, for several weeks, one group of participants wrote down things they were thankful for. A second group noted things that had annoyed them. The first group ended up feeling more optimistic and happy about their lives. And they even exercised more and slept better. But it wasn’t because the first group had more things to be thankful for — it was the act of thinking about what they were grateful for that gave them such a tangible boost in well-being. We’re grateful not for the things we expect, but just the opposite. “At the cornerstone of gratitude is the notion of undeserved merit,” Emmons and McCullough write in their book, The Psychology of Gratitude. “The grateful person recognizes that he or she did nothing to deserve the gift or benefit; it was freely bestowed.” It’s like white blood cells for the soul, protecting us from cynicism, entitlement, anger and resignation — a small miracle that produces a lingering moment of grace. And as they conclude in their study, when we choose to continue creating these moments, the consequences are powerful. “A life oriented around gratefulness is the panacea for insatiable yearnings and life’s ills,” they write.
Martin Seligman, of the University of Pennsylvania — and one of the founders of the field of positive psychology — has shown that the benefits of a single gratitude exercise — in one study, writing and delivering a thank you letter — can last for an entire month. Gratitude has also been found to lower levels of stress and depression, and improve sleep. Researchers at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine found that gratitude exercises can lower levels of inflammation, which improves heart health. In adolescents, gratitude has been found to reduce materialism and increase generosity, and lead to healthier eating. At the other end of life, gratitude has been found to reduce loneliness in the elderly.
And before I go to sleep, I’ll quickly write down a few things I’m grateful for. It focuses my mind on all the many blessings in my life, big and small — and shrinks the list of unresolved problems. Of course, we all have a mix of both in our lives, but it’s up to us to choose which frames our outlook and our daily lives. As Charles Dickens wrote, “reflect upon your present blessings, of which every man has plenty; not on your past misfortunes, of which all men have some.”
And it’s not just our present blessings. The power of gratitude can also extend to what hasn’t happened — all those close shaves with “disaster” of some kind or another, all the bad things that could happen to us and just… don’t. That distance between them happening and not happening is grace. It’s summed up in one of my favorite quotes (attributed to the eighth-century Muslim jurist Imam Al-Shafi’i): “My heart is at ease knowing that what was meant for me will never miss me, and that what misses me was never meant for me.”
And then there are the disasters that do happen, that leave us broken and in pain. For me, such a moment was losing my first baby when I was 36. Losing a baby brings up so many unspoken fears and worst-case scenarios: Will I ever be able to carry a baby to term? Will I ever be able to become a mother? Everything felt broken inside. My mother had once shown me a quote from Aeschylus that spoke to me in those hours: “And even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.” And there it is again: grace. Gratus. Gratitude. It wasn’t a magic bullet. It didn’t erase my grief. I wouldn’t have wanted it to. But it told me I could get through it, and that I was strong enough to take this, carry it with me and keep going.
There are, of course, countless ways to bring the power of gratitude into your life. Mark Williams, of the University of Oxford, suggests a daily “10-finger gratitude exercise,” in which you list 10 things you’re grateful for and count them out on your fingers. Coming up with 10 won’t always be easy. But that’s the point — it’s about, as he puts it in his book Mindfulness, “intentionally bringing into awareness the tiny, previously unnoticed elements of the day.”
Laurie Santos taught Yale’s most popular class, “Psychology and the Good Life,” also known as the “happiness course.” To get the full effect of gratitude, “you have to take time to feel it,” she says. “It’s a moment to really reflect on, ‘What would my life be like without this thing?’”
That’s why gratitude has been at the core of every tradition that focuses on what it means to live a Good Life. “Our minds are terrible at accurately predicting what will make us happy,” she says. “I think that’s why humans have historically needed religion and faith. Those traditions push us in the direction of doing acts of charity, having gratitude, being in communities where we connect with people — all things that give us a boost. Luckily, nonbelievers can get a boost from those habits, too.”
You can even work gratitude into your life through habit stacking, creating a healthy new habit by “stacking” it onto an existing habit. For instance: Think of three things you’re grateful for while brushing your teeth or during some other part of your morning or nighttime routine. It doesn’t have to be about something big or life-changing. It can be gratitude for your morning coffee, or a random interaction with someone who made us smile that day, or a piece of nature on the way to work. Or it can be simply gratitude for being alive.
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