by Eric Gudan, Psy. D.
Today is a national holiday that should be all about togetherness and gratitude. Before our country’s founding, Thanksgiving celebrated generosity between communities, despite racial differences. Now, nearly 400 years later, our modern society too often associates Thanksgiving with impossible relatives, congested highways, and complicated meal preparation. Throw in the ever-encroaching Black Friday sales, marking the annual shift into materialistic consumerism, and you paint a very different picture of Thanksgiving.
Put the “Thanks” Back in Thanksgiving
As we begin yet another holiday season in our country, it’s important to put the “thanks” back into Thanksgiving, not only today but into the future. If the Native Americans can sit down with the Puritans and give thanks under the dire circumstances of that early winter, we can be thankful even if it means fighting traffic to eat a dinner that breaks our dietary rules with difficult relatives.
Striving to embrace an overall attitude of gratitude is worth the effort. Psychological research shows multiple robust benefits to recalling and remembering our blessings. In addition, sharing a blessing with others further boosts physical and psychological well-being.
For example, a thankful person may be blessed three-times over. First, by the positive attitude of gratitude; second, by the recognition that may result; and finally, through sharing that blessing with someone else. Grateful individuals are happier, have better relationships and are inoculated against depression.
Shift Your Focus to the Good and to God
It’s easy to always see the glass as half empty instead of half full. Part of embracing an attitude of gratitude is forcing ourselves to savor and focus on the goods and blessings we possess. Forget about the football game and be thankful for God’s wonderful gift of multi-color sight. Table political polarization and remember how your uncle always sends you a birthday card. Leave the sorrow of family members who have passed from this life and cherish the memories you have of them in earlier years.
If the holidays are challenging because of difficult family situations or a struggle with sadness and depression, try to do something pleasing to God. Offer prayers, try to be thankful for the opportunity to suffer as Christ suffered, and remember that God should be the ultimate recipient of thanksgiving, the source of all this is good.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (1418) encourages us “to visit the Blessed Sacrament as a proof of gratitude” and reminds us that the fourth commandment requires “honor, affection and gratitude toward elders and ancestors.” (2199) We see gratitude throughout the Bible as well from the Psalms to the Gospels and hear it echoed through the words of the saints. St. Teresa of Avila tells us “in all things give Him thanks” while St. Gianna Beretta Molla shares that “the secret of happiness is to live moment by moment and to thank God for what He is sending us every day in His goodness.”
Use Your Body to Practice Gratitude
God created us with body, mind and soul. He intends for us to use the three together to bring Him glory as well as experience His countless blessings. It’s important to remember that our bodies can help us change our psychological attitudes. Plenty of studies show that physically smiling can make us feel better. Playing a silly game with children can often raise spirits. Taking a deep breath can have an automatic calming effect. The same is true in practicing gratitude.
This Thanksgiving, take the time to share what you’re thankful for out loud. Whether that means the traditional go-around-the-table sharing time or simply making it a priority to thank friends or family for something they have added to your life. Extend this practice into following weeks by jotting down three things every month, every week or even every day that you’re thankful for as well as the people involved. Make it a point to thank those around you sincerely and often, even for the smallest things. Gratitude is like a muscle that can be strengthened through practice, resulting in deeper and more frequent gratitude into the future.