Isn’t it remarkable that we Americans have an entire holiday just to indulge in one particular emotion? No, it’s not “gluttony” or “sloth”, neither of which is an emotion, although, interestingly, each of the rest of the Seven Deadly Sins is. Probably best to avoid pride, wrath, avarice, lust, and envy on Thanksgiving Day, especially if you are visiting in-laws. In any case, I am talking about gratitude.
Why is gratitude special? We don’t honor any of the other great emotions with a real holiday. (I said a real holiday. When I get paid to take the day off on Valentine’s Day or Halloween, then we can talk about love and fear.). On top of that, several other holidays dedicated to specific people or groups (Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Memorial Day, etc.) at least strongly imply that we should remember those folks with gratitude. Rolling your eyes during the Veterans’ Day parade – not a good idea, pal.
If you only think of gratitude as a social lubricant – the “thank you” that encourages future transactions – then Thanksgiving might seem like just one big excuse for football and pie. But nearly every culture has recognized it as something more. Cicero wrote, “Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others.” (And Cicero might have recognized that our word “thanks” is related to the Latin “tongere”, meaning “to know” – highlighting the connection between understanding and appreciation.) Gratitude has been prized across the ages and in every major religious tradition, and with quantifiable good reason: modern psychological studies have shown that gratitude is strongly tied to mental health and general well being. Attentively cultivating a grateful attitude – for example, by keeping a daily journal listing things you are grateful for, or by sending a message of thanks to someone in your life – can generate happiness and lower stress. We all like to laugh at the tension and drama inherent in our yearly family gatherings, but we still gather yearly. Like the Pilgrims and the Wampanoags and Abraham Lincoln, we all recognize that a day of Thanksgiving does us good.
If you are figuring out fulfillment, be sure to bring gratitude into your tool kit. It’s not just about counting your blessings, although that is important – counting your blessings forces you to identify the positives in your work or career situation, and you can use those positives as touchstones in developing more personally satisfying goals. On top of that, grateful people tend to develop more positive coping mechanisms and make more progress in personal growth. So every day, thank a colleague, list some blessings, pray or meditate on the good things you have – not because it will make you a more commendable person, but because it will make you a happier person. You can thank me later.