Unlike our mammalian counterparts, humans are unique to suffering because we have language that gives voice to our many challenges. In fact, humans appear to be the only sentient beings on the planet that have language that permits us to reflect, negatively, on our lot in life. Unfortunately, we often use this language to focus on our suffering, painting a picture of all that has gone and is going wrong in our lives.
Fortunately, that same language also gives us the antidote to suffering: choosing words of appreciation for the small things, the small breaths and smiles, giggles, and sunshine. We all have the ability to use gratitude; it is one of the 24 character strengths that is universally valued and “owned” by us all. It’s ours to practice, grow, and refine.
So here we are in the Thanksgiving season. The act of gratitude is buried in the name. This is the season of thankfulness, to remember all that we are grateful for, to embrace loved ones and share in these blessings. We gather around the table and remember all of the good things that have happened to us in the past year. We have our weekend of being thankful and then rush headlong into a winter of celebration of what we celebrate, thanking people for the gifts and food they share…and gratitude is done for the year.
Like attending church once a year or exercising once a month, expressing gratitude only at Thanksgiving is a step in the right direction, but a missed opportunity for expanding happiness, well-being, and joy.
When we limit our gratitude to this yearly ritual, we tend to focus our gratitude on the “big thanks”:
• I am thankful for my family.
• I am thankful for my job.
• I am thankful for my health.
We miss the many moment-by-moment blessings, the sudden strokes of luck, the tiny miracles that bring a smile to our faces. These moments of awe may get lost at Thanksgiving in the tidal wave of how wonderful our family and friends are.
It seems that embracing this strength gives a lot of bang for your buck. Research has repeatedly pointed to the fact that a regular “diet” of gratitude promotes well-being and increased positive mood in comparison to those who are infrequently grateful (Emmons & McCullough, 2003). In addition, being grateful has been linked to success throughout life (Vaillant, 1993). Keeping a gratitude journal for six weeks has been shown to have a lasting impact on happiness. This research concludes that through the use of gratitude, people can actually move their happiness “set point” enough that it has a noticeable impact on their outlook in life.
“When we focus on our gratitude, the tide of disappointment goes out and the tide of love rushes in.”
– Kristin Armstrong
As we begin to look more deeply at our lives, on a daily basis, we start to see the many gifts that we are given each day:
• I am thankful that my cat sleeps close to me every night, expressing her connection and security with me.
• I am thankful that my friend is continuing to recover from almost a full year of treatment for breast cancer.
• I am thankful that the fall has been mild, offering me a gradual introduction to winter.
To look at research again, this repeated focus on what is going right and how we are grateful for it, is connected to enhanced physiological functioning with both cardiovascular health and immune systems being affected positively. (McCraty, Atkinson, Tiller, Rein, & Watkins, 1995). And, if you’re still not sold, consider that grateful people typically live longer than ungrateful people (Danner, Snowdon, and Friesen (2001).
The point is, gratitude can be extended every month, every week, every day, and every minute. It can be cultivated into a world view of appreciating where we find ourselves at any moment. It’s a way of waking up in the morning and going to sleep at night.
• I am thankful that my grandkids want to sit on my lap just for cuddling sake.
• I am thankful that my home is warm and that the roof doesn’t leak.
• I am thankful for weekends that allow me time to reconnect with the people that mean so much to me.
“The sun is perfect and you woke this morning. You have enough language in your mouth to be understood. You have a name, and someone wants to call it. Five fingers on your hand and someone wants to hold it. If we just start there, every beautiful thing that has and will ever exist is possible. If we start there, everything, for a moment, is right in the world.”
— Warsan Shire
Danner, D. D., Snowdon, D.A., Friesen, W.V.(2001) Positive emotions in early life and longevity: Findings from the nun study. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 80(5), 804-813.
Emmons, R.A. & McCullough, M. (2003). Counting blessings versus burdens: an experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84 (2), 377-389.
McCraty R., Atkinson, M., Tiller, W.A., Rein, G., Watkins, A.D.(1995) The effects of emotions on short-term power spectrum analysis of heart rate variability. American Journal of Cardiology, 76(14): 1089-93.
Vaillant, G.E. (1993). The wisdom of the ego. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press.
Watch videos of Robert Emmons discussing how to reap the many benefits of a practice of gratitude.
This post was originally published on November 22, 2015.