As Americans prepare for a Thanksgiving holiday filled with family and feasting, my thoughts turn to the power of giving thanks – from a psychological and educational perspective.
Is being thankful a healthy choice, and if so, how can we infuse our lives with gratitude?
With a winter storm warning in effect along the east coast of the United States, I am reminded of a trip I once took to a vacation resort. My electric room key stopped working, and I went to the front desk to remedy the situation. After waiting in line behind several new arrivals to the hotel, my turn finally arrived.
After explaining my problem to the hotel clerk, he handed me a new room key, smiling widely as he thanked me for my patience. Without even thinking, I responded: “It’s easy to be patient in paradise”. “You just made my day,” he said, as his smile broadened.
Judging by my comment’s reception, it seems as though expressions of gratitude have gone out of style and are entirely unexpected. The timing for this phenomenon is particularly odd because research on the growing field of positive psychology have now identified gratitude as a characteristic that can promote resilience, increase our self-esteem, build our relationships, improve our sleep and our mood, reduce our stress, boost our immune system and even lower our blood pressure.
In other words, gratitude is good for your health!
Gratitude is generally understood as the combination of both feelings and expressions of appreciation, a sense of wonder and thankfulness for life. But even though gratitude is good for us, modern cultural attitudes and practices may thwart both graciousness and gratitude.
These days, we are a bit too entitled. We feel that we deserve good treatment and don’t quite understand why we should have to be nice to those who provide it. We take our comfort and security for granted and are so engrossed in our own pursuits that we express gratitude as a reflex or not at all.
If we want to mold our society into one that can experience wonder and appreciation for life, and enjoy all of the health and psychological benefits that thanks-giving can offer, we will need to make some drastic changes.
The first step will be focusing (really focusing) on what we have. We should be asking our children and students what they are thankful for at least as often as we ask to see their homework.
We also need to teach the art and skill of the gracious “thank you,” and model thankfulness, replacing complaints about holiday preparation with our unbridled joy at the opportunity to share good times with family and friends.
Some may shudder at this “feel good” approach to teaching and parenting, and harbor concerns that it will create children addicted to gratitude. But this doesn’t concern me in the least – I am a proud gratitude junkie.
I enjoy it when my employer demonstrates appreciation for my efforts, and when my spouse tells me how much he appreciates my home decorating. Nothing makes my day quite like when my children visit, lift the cover off a pot in the kitchen and wax poetic about my cooking. Of course, I would work, cook, and decorate no matter what, but those bits of gratitude fuel my efforts, and make them seem even more worthwhile.
And I am hooked on giving thanks, too. I thank my mailman, the dry cleaners, the faculty that works so diligently with me, the students who enrich my learning, the friends and family who offer their well wishes in good times, and support in bad times. I pour it on thick and make it stick.
Social scientists tell us that gratitude is not just given but transmitted. The contagion effects of thanks-giving may occur not because of what giving does for others, but because of how it makes us feel. We truly get when we give, and it continues to pass from person to person.
Preparing for a season of gifts and celebration, we have the wonderful opportunity to teach ourselves and our children what A. A. Milne’s Piglet knew well: even a very small heart can hold a very large amount of gratitude. And in holding and sharing that gratitude, perhaps the very small hearts in our care will grow larger, healthier, and stronger.
Here’s to a happy and healthy season of thanks-giving.
Dr. Novick will be speaking on the topic of “Hakarat Hatov: Psychological and Educational Benefits of Thanks-giving” on Sunday, November 30 at a 7:30 PM at Yeshiva University’s headquarters in Israel, 40 Duvedevani Street, Jerusalem.
An hour prior to the lecture, Dr. Novick will host a Dessert Reception and Information Session for those interested in learning about the Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education’s new online Master’s Degree programming.