Don’t Worry Be Grateful: Why Being Thankful Isn’t Just for Thanksgiving Day
"The clock is running. Make the most of today. Time waits for no man. Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is a mystery. Today is a gift. That's why it is called the present."
- Alice Morse Earle, 1902
The clock is running and another holiday is upon us. Another opportunity to make the most of today.
I love Thanksgiving for many reasons – family, friends, food, and fall - these are just some of my personal favourites. But as a psychologist who helps people with anxiety, I like Thanksgiving for the lessons it has for us - the focus on gratitude and the focus on the present.
If there was a holiday to celebrate Anxiety – let’s call it “Anxiety Day” – it would be about the future (not the present) and what things might possibly happen. Rather than focusing on what IS – anxiety likes to zoom in on what could be. And it doesn’t focus on the good things – it goes for the scary things… Disaster. Disease. Dying. Social rejection. Spiders. You get the idea. I don’t know what type of food you would serve at an Anxiety Day party, but I guess you would be worried if it had gone bad, contained toxins, wasn’t nutritious enough, etc.
How do you feel when you think about everything that could possibly go wrong or hurt you in the future? Try thinking about it now for a minute. Notice how you are feeling.
Now, think about everything you are grateful for in your life – in the world. If you have trouble filling a minute with this, it’s okay to repeat things more than once. Notice how you are feeling.
I’d be willing to bet that focusing on gratitude made you feel better than paying attention to all the scary things in life.
Looking at the past through a lens of gratitude rather than catastrophe can influence both your feelings and actions.
Anxiety likes to root around in the past too – looking at all the things you may have said or done that could cause problems, make people upset, or lead to your rejection. Anxiety will remind you of that time you overcooked the turkey or made a joke that no one thought was funny (or worse!). Looking at the past through a lens of gratitude rather than catastrophe can influence both your feelings and actions. You might be more likely to host a family get together if you focus on the gathering rather than needing to have a clean house, delicious meal or guests that always get along. You might be more likely to accept an invitation if you focus on the connection you do have instead of all the things that may be missing. Holidays can be a painful time of year – especially for people who are lonely or grieving – and anxiety doesn’t help.
Anxiety can be the default setting for our attention. Practicing gratitude is a skill that can be developed – we can learn to direct our attention away from threat and toward the things that matter to us – the things for which we are truly grateful.
“I don’t have to chase extraordinary moments to find happiness – it’s right in front of me if I’m paying attention and practicing gratitude”
– Brene Brown, Ph.D.
This is not to say that gratitude is a cure-all for anxiety (wouldn’t that be great if one existed?). But if you are struggling with anxiety, consider learning more about gratitude and cultivating a gratitude practice. What better time than thanksgiving to think about this?
So what is gratitude anyway, how can we become more grateful, and why should we bother trying (isn’t it hard enough to try to eat healthy, exercise, and floss my teeth?)
What is Gratitude?
Gratitude is about noticing, appreciating and expressing thanks for what one has. Oxford dictionary defines gratitude as “the quality of being thankful; readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness.”
Gratitude expert Robert A. Emmons, Ph.D. (2010) explains that there are two main parts to gratitude:
“First, it’s an affirmation of goodness. We affirm that there are good things in the world, gifts, and benefits we’ve received. This doesn’t mean that life is perfect; it doesn’t ignore complaints, burdens, and hassles. But when we look at life as a whole, gratitude encourages us to identify some amount of goodness in our life.
The second part of gratitude is figuring out where that goodness comes from. We recognize the sources of this goodness as being outside of ourselves. It didn’t stem from anything we necessarily did ourselves in which we might take pride. We can appreciate positive traits in ourselves, but I think true gratitude involves a humble dependence on others: We acknowledge that other people—or even higher powers, if you’re of a spiritual mindset—gave us many gifts, big and small, to help us achieve the goodness in our lives.”
Why is Gratitude Good?
Gratitude researchers have studied the effects of keeping a “gratitude journal” in which they regularly record the things for which they’re grateful. Dr. Emmons and colleagues found that people who practice gratitude consistently report physiological benefits (e.g., lower blood pressure), psychological benefits (e.g., more joy, happiness, and optimism), and social benefits (e.g., less isolation).
“Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger to a friend."
- Melody Beattie
How to Practice Gratitude
There are many different ways to practice gratitude in daily life.
One gratitude exercise is to practice counting beneficial aspects of your life on a regular basis. Ask yourself, “what am I grateful for today?” Pick a regular time to do this. In my family, we do “our thanksfuls” right before bedtime. We each choose three things that we are grateful for. Some people do it around the dinner table. Others might find it easiest to do first thing in the morning. You can practice gratitude on your own or with others.
Researchers have been studying different gratitude practices that are beneficial. Based on the different suggestions I reviewed, including, Dr. Emmon’s “10 Ways to Become More Grateful”, here are three good tips that I SAW (Speaking, Acting and Writing gratefully) for practicing being thankful.
1. Speak gratefully. Use words of gratitude such as gifts, givers, fortunate, abundance, thanks, blessings (Emmons, 2010). If you don’t want to say it, maybe you could sing it like Bruno Mars, who is “Hashtag Blessed."
2. Act Gratefully. Actions such as saying thank you and smiling encourage gratitude (Emmons, 2010). Donating to a food bank has the potential to be not only an act of charity but also gratitude.
3. Write gratefully. Keep a Gratitude Journal. Establish a daily practice in which you remind yourself of the gifts, benefits, and good things you enjoy. Set aside time on a daily basis to remember moments of gratitude associated with ordinary events, your personal attributes, or valued people in your life. (Emmons, 2010).
Apply SAW to what you SEE, and more grateful you will be.
OK - maybe I’ve read too many Dr. Seuss books, but you get the idea. Your viewpoint and what you pay attention to can shift your emotions in a more positive direction.
Two common barriers to practicing gratefulness are forgetfulness and a lack of mindful awareness. There are so many things “to do” that it’s easy to forget to make time for practicing anything, much less gratitude. It can be hard to focus on the things we are thankful for when the bad things in life are vying for our attention. If we forget to brush our teeth and floss, our dental health will not be as good. If we are lucky, a dentist can fill cavities or pull rotten teeth and get us back on track. What happens when we neglect our mental health? What are things we can practice daily that will help? Scientific research is showing that gratitude is good for us. Try to make a habit. Start with something small and doable. If you do it at the same time every day, this will help. Some people will set a reminder on their phone or have a visual reminder such as a post-it note. You could visualize a “see-saw.” I’ve seen inspiring messages on everything from tea towels to tattoos! Do what works for you.
Don’t worry be grateful.
The clock is running.
Worry doesn’t change yesterday or tomorrow, but it makes today worse. Gratitude has the power to change the present for the better.
Make the most of today.
This thanksgiving, ask yourself, What am I thankful for?
And don’t stop there. Make the most of all the “todays”.
Giving thanks isn’t just for Thanksgiving Day.
Dr. Melanie Badali, R.Psych.
Dr. Melanie Badali is a Registered Psychologist and is CACBT-ACTCC certified in Cognitive Behaviour Therapy. She is on the Board of Directors at Anxiety Canada and practices at the North Shore Stress and Anxiety Clinic.