Growing up, we always had a full house. My parents are the kind of people who invite anyone and everyone who doesn’t have their own celebration to join our celebration. In fact, after that last-minute grocery store run for those missing ingredients prior to a holiday meal, my mother often comes home to announce that our guest list has grown by a guest or two or three. In short, no matter how well they know you, if you bump into my mom or dad, and you don’t have a place to go for any given holiday, you’ll probably find yourself at our table.
There is only one exception to that rule—Thanksgiving dinner. It’s the one holiday that we reserve for us; just us. Not unlike many American families, we spend much of the day together in the kitchen cooking a variety of foods, watching the Macy’s Day Parade, The National Dog Show (everyone watches that, right?), and some football before eating a decadent dinner. But my favorite tradition of all? Going around the table to express what we are thankful for. To say out loud the good in my life and hear the good in the lives of my family is, well, nice. In fact, science says it is more than just nice. Over the past few years, increasing studies have focused on the impact of the practice of gratitude. It’s not just an Oprah-backed “you can change your life” self-help technique. Science shows that expressing gratitude; taking time to recognize what is good in life, contributes to a kind of re-wiring of your brain. So inspired by my family’s Thanksgiving tradition, this week I took a deep dive into gratitude. And what I found was an easy and powerful way to change our perspective and live a more inspired life.
Thinking back to Thanksgivings past, my list of appreciations has focused on the general good in my life. I typically express my thanks for the health of myself and my family, for our ability to come together on this holiday, for the food at the table, and whatever success I may have achieved in the past year. Everyone else around the table follows the same general script. But curious about the gratitude traditions of others, I asked a friend what her family expresses gratitude for prior to their Thanksgiving meal. She explained, “Everyone says the usual stuff. Happy to be together and all that.” And that’s the common theme: With all the struggle, disappointment, and discontent you may be feeling throughout the year, it is important to pause and take note of what you may take for granted—family, food, and shelter—but that which can be the back bone for all that is good in your life. As another friend said to me, “You have no idea how lucky you are to have all the ‘usual stuff.’ It’s not always so ‘usual.’” She is right. But I also realized that expressing this gratitude on Thanksgiving, while a nice practice, wasn’t particularly changing my life.
I remembered back to a lecture by Sheryl Sandberg, a lecture I’ve written about in letters past and one I think of often. She spoke about her husband’s untimely death and her process in trying to live with the ever-present pain of loss. She was afraid that living each day without her husband would never get easier. In fact, she even received a letter from a stranger that told her just that. The letter was from a woman who lost someone she loved years ago and said, quite succinctly, that it would never get easier. Panicked, she called her friend and famed psychologist Adam Grant. He flew across the country the next day to tell her, in person, that it would get easier. And a year later, she was on the stage of the 92nd Street Y in New York City to explain to a captivated audience that keeping a gratitude journal was one of the things that got her through; that it slowly changed her perspective and allowed her to live more fully. She even wrote about it in her book, Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience and Finding Joy. With that in mind, this week I pondered the difference between daily life gratitude and yearly Thanksgiving gratitude. In this case, is more that much better? The answer is yes.
Science says that taking time each day to acknowledge what makes our lives easier, happier, or more comfortable not only affects the way we think about our lives and ourselves, but also changes the way we approach each and every day. Sheryl Sandberg admitted the exercise was tedious at first. Every night before she went to bed, she would try to think of what was good about her day—specific things that happened. And I imagine this could be hard for anyone. Our list might start with something simple like, “I appreciate that my coffee was extra hot today.” But, over time, she started looking for the good throughout her day, and in looking for the good, her perspective on her day changed. Because she was looking for good throughout her day, she experienced more good right in the moment. And that is exactly what science says will happen. Our minds are wired to seek out danger in order to keep us safe. But when we consciously seek out good (even just for the goal of writing it down in our gratitude journal), our brain is rewired to seek out good over danger, and good over bad. The consistency of writing it down is important because it forces us to make a practice of seeking out good. This practice, over time, becomes a habit.
The subject of gratitude is something I’ll come back to often, because there is so much to consider about this easy yet impactful practice. I even think that my parent’s practice of inviting strangers to our holiday table is their own way of expressing gratitude. This expression comes in many forms. For more inspiration, check out my article, “The Happiness Habit.”
Why not start a health-supportive New Year’s resolution this Thanksgiving? Before your meal, give thanks for all that is good, but then continue this little ritual each and every day. See for yourself how gratitude changes your perspective. It really can be as easy as writing your gratitude down every day—making every day a day of thanksgiving.
Make A Change Today,