On Gratitude

Gobble Gobble till you Wobble Wobble

Happy Thanksgiving everyone. I had a few quick thoughts to share with you all on gratitude and giving thanks. As we all recover (in one way or another) from celebrating Thanksgiving, why not spend a moment thinking about gratitude and giving thanks?

This is, in a way, a reappropriation of the holiday. As we have become more “woke” we have spent some good effort confronting the darknesses within the American past – those moments in history when we as a country were less than humane, open, accepting, compassionate, etc (yes, this is a deeply sugarcoated way of describing the atrocities in our past). These are dark and shameful elements of our past, and they are uncomfortable stepping stones to where we are now and what we have achieved (for better or worse). Becoming more aware of these things, changing cultural concepts into Indigenous People’s Day and National Day of Mourning are valuable steps toward enlightenment. In Germany, current school children are taught about the Holocaust with humility and understanding. They recognize the value of facing the mistakes of the past to prevent the inflation of the future. We have begun to turn this stone as well.

But this post isn’t about the historical dark side of the Thanksgiving holiday. I want to look at things a little more literally. I believe this is what most people do if they have the opportunity to sit around a dinner table with loved ones. It’s about giving thanks.

Why is gratitude a psychologically relevant topic? Well, to put it simply, it is about acknowledging truths. So frequently, we deny negative (read: unpleasant) truths. It’s what most defense mechanisms hide from view. It’s obvious to most of us that most people want to avoid unpleasant, scary, or painful truths. But, coincidentally, we do this with some positive truths as well. It is very easy for us to become encased in stress, negativity, cynicism, and suspicion. We have increasingly bought into a notion that we need to be cautious and suspicious of each other. We are inundated with negative news (notice, whether it’s true or “fake” it’s almost always negative), combativeness of one kind or another, and gobs of anger. All recent social measures say that we are carrying around more medium-grade, chronic stress than ever before (except maybe the Great Depression, but that hasn’t been measured) and it’s wreaking havoc . Medically we know that chronic stress is profoundly unhealthy for us, with some theorizing that it could be an origin of most chronic illnesses. The same could be said for the increasing reports of anxiety across the population.

In the middle of all this negativity, it can be hard to recall that there are some good things in our life. And here is what I think is the most important point of all of this: feeling gratitude for what you have does not negate the worry, the pain, the concerns, or the wounds of your life. Having gratitude doesn’t mean you can’t be upset, sad, scared, or pissed about something else in your life. Gratitude and pain are not mutually exclusive, and gratitude isn’t a way of saying “don’t worry, be happy” (credit to Bobby McFerrin if he has a copyright on that phrase). It’s about acknowledging that, even though you might be in pain, some things have gone your way, in one way or another.

How do I do this, Dr. Santana? Well, there are lots of sources that discuss the psychological benefits of gratitude and give lots of differing advice on how to do it. And honestly, it doesn’t matter how you create what has been dubbed a “gratitude practice.” Just that you do it. So take the time. Start a gratitude journal. Go around your dinner table and talk about what you’re thankful for – every night! Not just in the end of November. Give yourself 5 minutes every morning, or every night before bed, to think about 1 thing you’re grateful for. It doesn’t matter how you do it. Just do it (credit to Nike, incase they have a copyright on that phrase).

And so with that, I will say thank you and Happy Giving Thanks.