Beyond Thanksgiving Day: Does Being Thankful Make Any Difference?

Reflect on your present blessings, on which every man has many, not
on your past misfortunes, of which all men have some. —Charles Dickens

This post isn’t about diet – about avoiding certain foods on Thanksgiving, etc.

It’s something entirely different.

When our ancestors lived in caves, hunted with sticks and spears, being alert to danger was imperative. If you weren’t, you could end up dead. Having a mind that searched the environment for threats and recognized patterns that could lead to life-threatening situations was very valuable.

Unfortunately, that trait of finding the negative in life was embedded in our DNA. The mind is wired for it.

Sure, sometimes we face certain threats. Cars that randomly swerve on the highway, a dark alley with a strange figure lurking, a lump on your body that just sort of appears – catching these kinds of things is important and your ancestral wiring comes into play.

Most of the time though, you don’t need or want a negative mindset.

You’ve probably heard that before though, right?

Don’t be negative….look for the positive…being thankful for what you have.

Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.

Does it ever really work though? Does the act of being thankful not only make you more thankful but help you in any other way or are we doomed to become Oscar of The Odd Couple fame?

The Proof

To find out, researchers from the University of California, Davis and the University of Miami asked students to take one day per week and write down five things they were grateful for. It didn’t matter what the five things were.

Another group of students was asked to write down five things that irritated them (sitting at a red light, teachers that were boring) while a third group was asked to write down any five things they did that week (did my laundry, studied for a test).

The researchers followed these three groups for ten weeks and found that the group that wrote down things they were thankful for had a more positive outlook on life, were more positive about the upcoming week, had fewer health complaints (aches, pains, illness ) and exercised 1.5 hours more per week than the other groups.

So, yes, actively searching for and physically acknowledging (in the form of writing) even the smallest grains of gratitude will help you enjoy your life and even lead a healthier one.

What to Do

In the study, the students acknowledged their gratitude one day per week. This is probably the easiest way to start.

Choose one day each week and write down at least three things you are thankful for in a journal, book, binder – whatever works for you. And, to make it even more interesting, take the journal and at the top of each page write in only the date (not the year). So, page one might be January 1, then page two January 2, etc.

Then for each entry, record the year. What you’re creating is a great way to see what you were thankful for in years past.

After a month, stop and take an inventory of your life. What’s different? How do you feel? How well have you stuck to your exercise routine? How positive are things in general?

Then, you can increase the frequency of gratitude entries. Martin Seligman, widely regarded as a pioneer in positive psychology, for example, suggests writing down three things you’re thankful for everyday.

How to Find the Positive

You don’t have to find three outrageously huge things to be thankful for like winning the lottery or waking up to find you have hair on what was a bald head. Any small positive thing will work. And likely why this works is because to find these small, positive things, you have to look for them which means your mind is actively engaged, actively aware of the positive side of life.

For example. do you own a home? Yes? Write it down. How about a pet? Or maybe your son or daughter’s smile? Or maybe the way the sun hits the front of your house or the sound of the wind through the trees in your backyard? Get the point?

Study your life for all that is positive in it and your life will become a more positive life force.

Now, some of you may be wondering, “Yeah, well this is all well and good but what about if you hurt a bunch or a lot of the time? How can I be thankful for that?”

I understand that all too well. I think it’s very difficult to be thankful for pain. But, here’s the thing. Pain is emotional more than anything else. So when you hurt, you’re blocked. You can’t do certain things, the pain is annoying, irritating, tiring.

Pain pisses you off. You’re frustrated.

And frustration is anger at your inability to reach a goal.

Here’s what I’ve found. Even though I may hurt, from time to time, that doesn’t remove the positive things in my life. They’re still there. And oddly enough, paying attention to those things lessens the emotional weight of the pain. The pain is still there, wakes me up, whatever. But I don’t care as much about it. I can more easily adjust my expectations while not giving up on my goals.

Gratitude doesn’t remove trouble from your life but it does remove the sting that trouble brings.

Your Challenge

So here’s your challenge. For the next thirty days, once a week, jot down 3 things you’re thankful for and then at the end of the month, take stock of things in your life, your attitude, energy, and sense of well-being. And if you really want to know the truth, ask a trusted friend to give you feedback as well.

Here’s to a thankful Thanksgiving.

photo credit: Arya Ziai via photopin cc

Lacey says

Gratitude in pain, now that’s a tough lesson. During my own Dark Ages, a friend told me to practice gratitude as a way through the dark, but she might as well have been speaking Greek. I couldn’t get it. I could name things I “should” be thankful for but I couldn’t feel it.

My friend told me to try gratitdue for all the dark things: pain, consequences, fear, etc. Oh man, that was hard but it resonated – I could feel the sense in that. I sang the Alanis Morrissette song Thank You to myself all the time, and it really did help! A lot. I think gratitude readjusts our focus while also helping us give up the struggle – relenting, if not accepting.

Omar says

I am thankful for the fabulous last year…

Omar says

This is a great post DK. The act of acknowledging the positive helps to push worry and self-doubt out of the mind and it hard-wires the brain in all kinds of good ways. The magic begins when it starts to hard-wire people around you! It can help you to become a magnet for good things.

    DD Kelsey says

    I agree with you Omar and the reverse seems to be true as well…
    Thanks for commenting.

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