Greg Dennis: Why a gratitude holiday matters
North America is a land where, as Jackson Browne says on his new album, “Even in the richer neighborhoods, people don’t know when they’ve got it good. They’ve got the envy, and they’ve got it bad.”
Which is one more reason it’s a good thing that in Canada and the United States, we set aside one holiday weekend a year to count our blessings.
But gratitude isn’t the easiest feeling to conjure up during the stick season of November. It seems like a big order at this time of year — and is it just me, or have the skies been really gray lately?
It turns out, though, that gratitude is a wise and proven way to be a happier person.
Researcher Robert Emmons describes gratitude as “a felt sense of wonder, thankfulness and appreciation for life.”
Emmons and others in the burgeoning field of happiness research have shown that gratitude is much more than something we “should” feel (and it’s no fun to should on yourself anyway). Cultivating the feeling of thankfulness, whether on Thanksgiving or the other 364 days of the year, is “a kind of metastrategy for achieving happiness,” says author Sonja Lyubomirsky in “The How of Happiness.”
I think that by “metastrategy,” she means it’s a really good idea.
So good, in fact, that she lists these clinically demonstrated benefits:
“People who are consistently grateful have been found to be relatively happier, more energetic and more hopeful, and to report experiencing more frequent positive emotions. They also tend to be more helpful and empathic, more spiritual and religious, (and) more forgiving … The more a person is inclined to gratitude, the less likely he or she is to be depressed, anxiously, lonely, envious or neurotic.”
Lyubomirsky lists multiple ways to cultivate happiness through gratitude:
• Take a few minutes each day to say a silent thanks for the good things in your life.
• Share your gratitude with a friend, or with someone from your past who helped you along.
• Write down the things you’re grateful for, she says, and most simply and perhaps most powerfully of all,
• Say thanks.
So here’s one person’s list of a few reasons to be grateful at this time of year. Perhaps it will inspire you to make your own list. I’m grateful for:
• All the workers who make our stores and restaurants and cafes such pleasant places to be. It’s hard work, they’re on their feet all day, and the money ain’t that great. Yet somehow they manage to make us feel welcome and serve up coffee with a smile. (Extra thanks to the people who do the dirty work of cleaning up when the stores and eateries and offices are closed, and there’s vacuuming to be done and trash to be emptied.)
• Rituals old and new. “Modern family” isn’t just a sitcom, and many of us today find ourselves in fresh and unusual relationships. We have had to adjust over the decades to the loss of a loved one, perhaps even the loss of a family. So it is that every new ritual — and every old connection fondly recalled — can warm our hearts.
• The simple satisfaction of a fire in the wood stove. I spent much of last weekend cutting and stacking firewood, and it reminded me how every single log represents someone’s hard and underpaid work. Gratitude, too, that we live in a place where our wooded surroundings both sequester carbon and provide us with warmth from renewable energy.
• The arts. Whether it’s music piping into ears through all those ubiquitous white headphones, or the lovely works of local artists such as Rory Jackson, Kate Gridley, Woody Jackson and Sabra Field, the arts provide beauty right at hand, and right in the eye.
• The laboratory of democracy that is Vermont politics. Our state is a lively hothouse of exploration into the public issues and shared challenges that matter. They range, most recently, from the nature of our food to the availability of affordable healthcare, from fair taxation and educational quality to climate change solutions such as fossil fuel divestment and putting a price on carbon pollution. No gridlock here.
• The simple beauties of our natural world — a hawk soaring, the wild cry of coyotes, sunrises over the Greens and sunsets in the Adirondacks. All we need to do is just step outside.
Those are a few things on my list this Thanksgiving. What’s on yours?
Gregory Dennis’s column appears here every other Thursday and is archived on his blog at www.gregdenniswordpress.com. Twitter: greengregdennis. Email; [email protected].
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