Thanksgiving and the Psychology of Gratitude

Thanksgiving means giving thanks. Thanks to whom? There’s the rub.

If you look gratitude up in the dictionary you’ll find: the quality of being thankful; readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness: “she expressed her gratitude to the committee for their support”.

Gratitude is an emotion you express toward another person or group of persons. Gratitude generally means being grateful TO someone.

In the case of Thanksgiving, it’s unclear to whom you’re expressing gratitude. If you fervently believe in a God, then you express it to that supernatural being. But let’s be honest: a lot of people are not so sure about that supernatural being.

What’s unique about Thanksgiving? The emphasis is not so much on saying thanks (although that’s relevant) as to feeling grateful. This leads to questions about the whole psychology of gratitude.

Gratitude is not an expression of thanks so much as a state of mind. It’s the state of mind that gives rise to the desire to be thankful, or to thank someone.

What’s the state of mind? A positive outlook. To be grateful, you first have to be positive in your outlook. It’s an outlook where you remain aware of positive facts about your life and existence, and where you give those positive facts primary emphasis and importance.

Gratitude is the opposite of victim-think, an attitude so common in today’s culture. Victim-think stems from a view that you’ve somehow been given a raw deal, drew the short straw in life, and are consequently bitter about it. Maybe you blame God, maybe you blame men (or women), maybe you blame atheists (or believers), maybe you blame the 1 percent (or the 99 percent), maybe you blame white people (or blacks, or Hispanics) … the point is, you blame someone. Perhaps you take it out on family, friends or strangers. Perhaps you just stew your way through life with a perpetual chip on your shoulder.

There are people who do things called “gratitude lists,” on social media and elsewhere. I really like the idea. People write down or enumerate things they’re happy about on a given day. It might be their Starbucks coffee. It might be their loving spouse. It might be the smile on their child’s face. It might be recovery from an illness. It might be the sunset. It might be their upcoming vacation. It might be the fact they enjoy their work. It might be one’s pet, or the view from one’s home. The possibilities are endless.

The point behind a “gratitude list” is to remember the positive facts about your life, and to give them the importance and visibility they deserve. In the end, these good things are far more important than the bad things. Yes, the bad or disappointing things are just as real as the good ones. But so long as you’re alive, breathing, and capable of thought (and therefore happiness), it’s the good things that really matter the most. By far.

In that spirit, I wish everyone a Happy Thanksgiving!

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