At this time of the year, if we listen carefully, we can hear the Spirit of Thanksgiving calling to us, “Remember … remember.” That’s what the practice of “thanks-giving” is – the conscious remembering of undeserved benefits we’ve received. This practice enlivens us and connects us to others in many ways.
When someone enters therapy, it’s rarely because they’re having trouble managing all their feelings of gratitude! They are usually preoccupied with other, painful feelings. How can we use the intentional practice of thanks-giving to counter and even transform our painful feelings?
I’m sometimes hesitant to “prescribe” gratitude to my clients, because some of them have been hurt by friends or family who neglected to first acknowledge their pain and validate their feelings. But once we have experienced the “emotional clearance” of having our pain validated and sympathized with, the cultivation of an “attitude of gratitude” becomes an important aspect of our emotional health.
In his book Thanks!: How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier, psychologist Robert Emmons reports that:
“Positive emotions are physiologically beneficial because they ‘undo’ or ‘unknot’ the harmful effects of negative emotions. … Positive emotions thus correct the effects of negative emotions by restoring physiological and emotional balance.”
The practice of gratitude reminds us that goodness surrounds us on a daily basis. Even in difficult times, especially in difficult times, we need to lean in to the practice of gratitude, in order to fortify us against the inevitable downward pull of painful emotions.
I’d like to suggest three ways to practice gratitude that, taken together, will lift your spirits during this season.
- First, on your own, you can begin to list the names of people who have done good to you. Sit down with a cup of some warm beverage, a blank sheet of paper, and one hour to invest. Keep conscious of your feelings at the beginning, middle and end of the time. (For extra credit, you can call, write or even visit one of the people on your list.)
- Second, together with a few other people, share the stories associated with the names on your list. Do this one at a time, with each person taking a turn. There is great healing power in passing the live emotion of gratitude back and forth in a group setting. (You might want to have a box of tissues on hand!)
- Third, focus your gratitude outward or upward. The medieval German theologian Meister Eckhart counseled, “If the only prayer you say in your life is ‘thank you’, it would be enough.” Wherever you are in your spiritual journey, even if (especially if) you don’t think you have one, bring to this task all the intentionality you can muster. Say “Thank you!” — whisper it, shout it, sing it, dance it, act it out, draw it, privately or publicly, by yourself or with others.
Here’s my first annual “Thanksgiving Challenge” — between now and Thanksgiving Day, try one of these intentional practices of gratitude. Together, we can make this Thanksgiving a time that enlivens us and connects us lovingly and gratefully to others.