“At any time in your life you can see what you don’t have and feel sorry for yourself, or see what you do have and be grateful. You have a choice. You can’t feel sorry for yourself and be grateful at the same time. “
November is my favorite time of the year . . . not because of the weather, nor because it is one month closer to some major holidays, but because it is the month celebrating Thanksgiving. It used to be that I thought of this day as Turkey Day, and did not value or understand the effects of being thankful.
Today, the spirit of Thanksgiving for me is about being grateful and appreciative of the things I have, my experiences and the people I have in my life. It is something that I reflect on more than once a year, and especially in November, in part, because there are reminders everywhere, when they aren’t being usurped by Christmas!
I have noticed that in my life that if I focus a little each day on the things I appreciate and am grateful for in my life, I feel better and I am better able to face adversity. For example, when my car was stolen, being thankful that I had insurance, that I had a good friends to talk to, that someone lent me their extra car, that it was my car that was taken and not my life, and focusing on what I still had, helped make the experience less traumatic for me than it could have been. It was easier to regulate my emotions.
Sometimes I slack off on focusing on what I appreciate and Thanksgiving is a time to renew my cultivation of gratitude.
The attitude of gratitude- Finally something that science and religion see a value in! According to Adler and Fagley’s article on Appreciation published in the Journal of Personality, appreciation is:
acknowledging the value and meaning of something—an event, a person, a behavior, an object—and feeling a positive emotional connection to it. Experiences of appreciation enhance positive mood and feelings of connection to the appreciated stimulus and/or to the nature of existence (i.e., as in a feeling of awe or wonder).
I want to make note that indebtedness is separate from gratitude. Appreciating or feeling grateful because of something or someone in no way makes the grateful person indebted or obligated. Some resist allowing themselves to feel appreciative because they are afraid that expressing thanks obligates them to another’s services. If that is the case for you, try to uncouple the sense of obligation and the sense of appreciation and focus on the warm feelings and sense of well being that can come with appreciation.
Adler and Fagley have identified 8 distinct characteristics of appreciation that contribute to well-being to varying degrees. The first is a “‘have’ focus” which is the action of noticing what we have, acknowledging it and feeling good about it. Second, “awe” is the deep emotional or spiritual experience of valuing something in the moment, such as the depth, beauty and power of the ocean or the intricate simplicity of a daisy.
“Ritual” is a way to help us cultivate a sense of appreciation, either through religious installment or making choices to engage in repeated activities that help us focus on what there is to be grateful for. “Present moment” is a state similar to mindfulness-meditation where we practice keeping our attention in the here and now while focusing on appreciating the moments as they happen.
“Social/self comparison” where one looks at how they are better off now than in the past, or looking at others who they are better off than, however if one compared oneself to others that are doing better, this negatively impacted well-being. “Loss/adversity” where one realizes what they have been taking for granted because of loss, thus turning loss into a gain by making it a “benefit reminder.”
“Interpersonal” where one acknowledges the value that others have in our lives and feeling positively toward them for their contributions. The last subset of appreciation is “gratitude”. Adler and Fagley describe gratitude as:
Gratitude is a positive emotional reaction to a benefactor for something good that has been bestowed upon us. It involves first acknowledging this unique relationship and then remaining open to the vulnerability of having needs that are met by something outside of oneself.
I notice that the subsets of appreciation that I tend cultivate “‘have’ focus”, “interpersonal” and “gratitude.” When my basic needs are met I can focus easily on what I have in my life, such as a job, health insurance, an education, clothing that I like and other things. I can focus on how wonderful my friends are, and how they enhance my experience of life– by challenging me and supporting me. When I need help, rather than feeling shamed for not being 100% self sufficient, I can feel grateful when I receive help from others or things just happen to go in my favor.
I prefer to stay away from “social/self comparison.” Of course, being human, I inevitably do look at the world this way. When I notice, I try and gently shift my focus to something else. I do this even though comparing oneself to those less fortunate, or to a former self who is less fortunate can help one appreciate the life that exists now. I have found the comparison dynamic can also decrease my sense of well-being by making it easy to comparing me to others less favorably. In addition, for me, an attitude based in comparison helps create a sense of judgment of myself and others which hinders my ability to accept and appreciate myself.
Overall, it seems beneficial to keep the things we are grateful for close to our thoughts and hearts more often than once a year. By doing so, we have the opportunity to increase our sense of well-being. In addition to giving thanks, I hope to keep thanks in mind too.