As my fellow Americans celebrated Thanksgiving last week, I reflected on the occasion in my small South London flat, thousands of miles from the US shores. I was nearing the end of an experiment appropriately timed for Thanksgiving. It included fifteen days of giving thanks to others, specifically at the very start of each day.
With the significant loss of life and some of our liberties through our global pandemic, we’ve experienced a dramatic refocusing of our collective minds. We’ve shifted our focus on saving lives, building stronger communities of support, and delivering more thoughtful levels of care to humanity. This is not only in hospitals and social care settings, but among family, friends, and neighbours, too.
Still, this dramatic refocusing of the collective mind doesn’t stop there. Our priorities about what is important and worth our time and attention has measurably shifted, too. For example, celebrities as heroes was noticeably replaced by essential workers as heroes by the end of spring. Regular visits to the salon to wax and wash away our various insecurities was soon replaced by a general acceptance of greying hair and longer locks by mid-summer. It’s no surprise to me that among those I spoke with, no one lost out on a worthy love or a sense of self-worth as a result of not getting to the hair or nail salon.
Thankfully, this year forced many of us to demonstrate greater compassion for who we truly are as an individual and as a society. Even million dollar marketing campaigns aimed at encouraging the pricey purchases of consumer products somehow seemed ill-placed against a backdrop of crowded hospitals, human suffering, and social isolation. We’ve learned to live with less and be more thankful for what we already have.
I was no different. 2020 taught me to be especially thankful for my health, my home, and my loved ones.
And while I decided to forgo the turkey and trimmings last week, I still celebrated this month with the act of giving of thanks. For 15 days, I began each one with a message of thanks to a colleague, family member, or friend to share this gratitude. A simple email or text might seem insignificant, but ensuring that your first communication of the day is a mindfully constructed “thank you” is harder than you think. In fact, this is what I learned.
Lesson One: It’s easy to forget to start with thank you.
When life and work demands that you meet pressing deadlines and unexpected urgencies, it’s easy to remain in a constant state of reaction rather than a proactive one. Additionally, by the time we power-up and face the day, a number of pressing matters are usually already competing for our attention. Sadly, “thank you” doesn’t instinctively have the level of urgency one would hope. So it quickly slips down the pecking order, if not all together forgotten by the end of day.
So I had to find a way to make sure that it didn’t.
Lesson Two: This is a habit that needs to be developed like any other.
I began by writing down “send thank you” as the first item on my ‘to-do’ list. There were the obvious choices or my “primary group,” like colleagues who positively impacted my working life. For example: thanking a colleague in Finance who quickly sent through information needed; thanking other colleagues who regularly prioritise helping others; and thanking a dear friend who held a safe space for me to share my some of recent anxieties. Some days I had several people I could send a thank you note to. These days were the best.
Then there were a few other days when I thought to myself, “I don’t know who to thank today.” Imagine that! This added an especially challenging layer to the already busy morning. So that is when I turned to a “secondary group,” the less obvious choices but no less important. For example, this included thanking a neighbour via text (who I thanked briefly in person) for receiving a package on my behalf while I was out; or thanking a colleague for a seemingly small act earlier in the week; and thanking a family member for something that is still appreciated, even though it was a gesture carried out some months before.
The beauty of “thank you” is that it does not have an expiration date and it is never out of fashion.
Lesson Three: The practice of gratitude is directly linked to our wellbeing.
The first of my fifteen days, I began with four consecutive emails sent to different people for different reasons. Following this, I felt a surge of positive energy as if reaching the summit of a mountain at dawn. I felt empowered to tackle anything else headed my way that day. This was the reason I decided to start the next 15 days with a message of thanks. Would I still feel empowered by Day 10?
There had to be some chance of that occurring. After all, we can hardly go a day without seeing an article or hearing a podcast that reminds us of the value of gratitude. Whether we reflect on it or journal about it, there is growing evidence to support the wellbeing benefits we can experience as a result.
Evidence of positive psychology and its interventions are researched and well documented through the works of Dr. Martin E. P. Seligman, of the University of Pennsylvania; Dr. Michael E. McCullough of the University of Miami; and Dr. Robert A. Emmons of the University of California, Davis.
In various research studies conducted by these psychologists, the practice of gratitude resulted in increased optimism, physical wellbeing, and positive mental health. In a study conducted by Dr. Seligman, the act of writing and delivering a message of thanks to someone who was not “properly thanked before” resulted in a significant “increase in their happiness scores.”*
Reports in the media about the value of positive psychological interventions still keep coming through. As recently as the day after Thanksgiving, Forbes published the following article highlighting its positive impact: Expressing Gratitude Has Physical Health Benefits As Well As Emotional Benefits.**
Lesson Four: Thank you is gratitude shared.
There is no disputing that gratitude holds a rightful and necessary place in our daily lives. Without it, we do a great disservice to ourselves, especially when we let it fall down the pecking order. What could be more urgent than our wellbeing and the opportunity to form strong healthy bonds with others in the way that practicing thanks offers us? In the age of Covid-19 and increased isolation, nothing could be more pressing. The evidence is there.
Therefore, why not take your gratitude one step further and share it with someone else? As I see it, a message of thanks is gratitude shared. If gratitude is shared across our social connections, that can certainly have a positive multiplier effect on the economy of human happiness. Furthermore, it doesn’t even cost us a thing.
When we look at it that way, how can we NOT create a positive chain reaction by acknowledging the value and efforts of others in our lives? In doing so, we can keep the power of Thanksgiving going – well into the New Year and beyond.
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