This week, many of us will gather with family or friends to celebrate Thanksgiving. While the foundation of our holiday’s mythos is questionable, cultures around the world have some kind of fall holiday dedicated to gratitude, usually for the harvest. It’s common to preface the Thanksgiving feast with a prayer of gratitude or to have each person at the table share something for which they are thankful.
Those thanks typically revolve around one’s good fortune: a home, plenty of food, health retained or regained, loving family and friends. And there will be sermons and op-eds and blog entries exhorting us to remember to be grateful every day, not only on Thanksgiving.
“Practicing gratitude,” in fact, has become one in a nonsecular litany that includes “mindfulness” and “be kind.” Pop culture arounds with ready-to-share graphics and commodities — from t-shirts to those faux-recycled-barn siding signs sold at Cracker Barrel and Hallmark stores — about gratitude, mindfulness and kindness. Self-help gurus urge us to keep journals (someting else to buy!) to assemble daily gratitude lists, finding three or five or 10 things we’re grateful for. We post the memes and buy the shirts and keep our journals as if those actions in themselves confer upon us gratitude, mindfulness and kindness.
Don’t get me wrong — gratitude matters. Expressing gratitude is gracious, a recognition of the good things in our lives. Numerous studies have linked gratitude with higher levels of individual happiness and life satisfaction. The problem is in how we define and practice gratitude.
Popular conceptions of thankfulness seem glib and superficial. They can even make us feel worse, rather than feeling better.
Take the gratitude list, for example. I could never put my finger on why the practice didn’t work for me. The answer appeared in “Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle,” — by twin sisters Emily and Amelia Nagoski — one a scientist, the other a musician — that addresses how our culture creates stress ... including our conceptions of gratitude.
Emily tried the gratitude list, but like me, she found that “it always made her feel worse.” Why? “It just reminded her of how many people don’t have those things, which made her feel helpless and inadequate.”
That was my problem as well. Recounting my good fortune highlighted opportunities available to me — the well-educated daughter of loving parents — that others lack. It also made me aware of how easily I could lose my income, my home, my health. Because I live with chronic depression, that awareness often sent me into a downward spiral.
True gratitude requires introspection and awareness. To experience it, we must recognize the impact others have on our lives and see the value in experiences. The Nagoskis call it “gratitude for who you have” and “gratitude for how things happen.”
My “gratitude for who I have” includes my smart, funny sons, whose company I truly enjoy; my small circle of close friends, who know me and love me anyway; and colleagues past and present, whose ability, integrity and good humor made work fun. I want you all to know how much you mean to me.
Gratitude for how things happen is harder. It’s difficult to find a silver lining in adversity, and some things, such as abuse and tragedy, cannot be salvaged. But acknowledging the good from an ill wind is good for the psyche. COVID has led many of us to re-evaluate our lives and make changes. I committed to counseling and, with the help of a great therapist, am emerging from the darkness that gripped me for a decade. That, in turn, led me to a midlife return to the newsroom as a wiser and more capable journalist than I was 30 years ago.
As you prepare to give thanks on Thursday, take some time to look more deeply at what you’re grateful for. Try to find the good in an obnoxious relative or a difficult year. You’ll experience a kind of satisfaction that a feast with all the trimmings cannot convey. The lightness you’ll feel from true gratitude will offset the heaviness of an overfull stomach — and might make that obnoxious uncle more tolerable.