Thanksgiving day is almost here! This is, of course, a time where many gather with friends or family to relax, unwind, and eat good food. It can be a day filled with rituals like watching football, running races, planning out holiday shopping or volunteering at a local shelter or soup kitchen. One of the most important rituals, however, is the practice of giving thanks. Thanksgiving coincides with the end of the harvesting season, and giving thanks for the bounty of food underscores the original tradition of the holiday. For many of us, however, the closest we get to “harvesting” is walking our shopping carts up and down the grocery store aisles, so we tend to express thanks for things that span across wider categories of daily life.
The act of expressing thanks and gratitude is a profound practice that can add a great deal of meaning to daily life, beyond what is said at the Thanksgiving table. Research indicates that having an “attitude of gratitude” improves sleep and decreases symptoms of depression and anxiety. Keeping track of small positive things in daily life also impacts levels of happiness and heightens loving feelings towards others. At a time when there is so much violence and suffering in the world, it gives us an opportunity to take stock of the basic things we do have, including shelter, food, and hopefully a sense of safety.
But what happens when life feels difficult and there doesn’t seem much to be thankful about? For people struggling with depression, there is often a feeling of hopelessness or numbness to the world, a fear that nothing in their life will ever change. This is actually the most important time to practice gratitude because focusing on the small things can create a sense of comfort and wealth where otherwise there is only emptiness and despair. In fact, this is where the expression “don’t sweat the small stuff” is misleading because life is all about the small stuff, and pausing to take note of that can create a positive domino effect throughout the day. Perhaps we can be grateful for a warm place to sleep, a nourishing meal, our health, having a job to go to. If those things aren’t a guarantee, perhaps we focus on warm sunlight on a cold November day, getting a seat on a crowded train ride, a smile from a stranger or the opportunity to help someone else who might be in greater need.
I encourage my clients struggling with depression or anxiety to try writing down three things every day that they are grateful for. Some choose to do this at the end of the day, creating space to reflect on gratitude before going to bed. Others choose to do this first thing in the morning, getting their day off to a positive start and looking for new things to be grateful for. Almost everyone reports that this small act has a profound impact on their mood and creates a more open and loving attitude towards themselves and others.
So, as Thanksgiving arrives, what are you grateful for? And what might help you continue a practice of gratitude throughout the year?