The Origin of Giving Thanks on Thanksgiving
The origin of Thanksgiving isn’t always correctly represented in our history books. Certainly, the first feast among early settlers and the Native Americans, which took place in 1621, wasn’t all peace, love and pie. It is believed that in the earliest history of our country, Americans feasted to express gratitude for flowing crops, concluding war, and ratifying the U.S. Constitution. One thing is certain: the sentiment of giving thanks on the last Thursday of November is one that has resonated deeply with many American families since Abraham Lincoln declared ‘Thanksgiving’ a National holiday in 1863.
But gratitude isn’t just for Thanksgiving. In fact, neuroscience suggests that feasting on gratitude all year long can contribute to reduced levels of stress and increased levels of happiness and joy.
Overcome Your Brain’s Natural Tendency to Focus on the Negative
As a human being, your brain has a bias toward negative life events – it’s called “negativity bias.” This means that if nine good things happen and one bad thing happens, your brain is likely to focus on the one bad thing.
Why is this?
Biologically speaking, your brain is wired to protect you from danger. This means it is constantly scanning for threats, deciding whether to fight or to flee. When you’re being chased by a wild bear, this is a helpful evolutionary quality. Unfortunately, the reptilian part of your brain never evolved enough to distinguish between a real threat and a perceived threat. In modern times, this means you have regular surges of cortisol and adrenaline (stress hormones) coursing through your body. That feeling gets synthesized through repeated exposure and packaged into your memory. The strength of these negative memories overpowers those related to happy, positive experiences.
Here’s the good news:
According to neuroscientist Dr. Rick Hanson, PhD, your brain is neuroplastic, which means it has the ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections. In layman’s terms: you can overcome your brain’s negativity bias by re-training it to focus on the positive. One way to do that is through gratitude.
Serve Up a Healthy Plate of Gratitude to Refocus on the Positive
When you express gratitude, your brain releases dopamine and serotonin – the “feel good” hormones. Positive psychology tells us that gratitude can be a ‘natural antidepressant.’ The effects of gratitude, when practiced regularly, are equivalent to antidepressant medications. Read that again. Holy guacamole, you can literally change the chemicals in your brain, and feel an immediate mood boost, just by focusing on gratitude.
You’ve probably heard the term “gratitude practice.” A gratitude practice is simply a habit or practice of reflecting on things you’re grateful for. It can be as formal or as informal as you like. Some people express gratitude at the same time every day – on waking, for instance. Others do it when they can. Many people write down the things they’re grateful for, while many simply reflect quietly to themselves or share with family members at the dinner table. There are no hard and fast requirements. The key is finding an approach that you feel good about embracing as a conscious and regular part of your life.
By highlighting for your brain all of the good things happening in your life, you will re-train it to focus less on the negative and more on the positive.
Spread Gratitude Throughout Your Organization
Gratitude isn’t a one-way practice. Not only do you get a boost of happy hormones when you express gratitude, but also when you receive it. David DeSteno, a professor of Psychology, suggests that expressing gratitude to employees and co-workers can actually build team resilience, grit and performance. When you express gratitude to team members, they feel appreciated, valued and seen. This doesn’t just make them feel good, it makes them feel a deeper sense of loyalty, investment and willingness to perform for the organization.
A little gratitude can go a long way! Give thanks all year long and before you know it, your brain will be hard-wired to look for positivity.