What does it mean to “give thanks?”
Well, it depends. It depends on who, where, when, and how.
If you were around in October 1621 at the Plymouth Plantation, you might have been part of the “First Thanksgiving”. Here, the Native Americans and Pilgrims came together to celebrate the first harvest in the New World. The settlers had struggled the previous winter due to a lack of supplies and food. Many had starved or became ill and died as a result. Yet, a number survived. Massasoit, leader of the Wampanoag tribe, had given the colonists food to get through their first winter. After the snow thawed, the Pilgrims gradually learned to live off the land. Squanto, from the Patuxet tribe, taught them how to grow corn and catch eel. After this successful harvest, they threw a three-day feast that included waterfowl, turkey, venison, corn, and various shellfish. Although such festivities were held intermittently in the years since, Thanksgiving finally became a federal holiday in 1863, thanks to Abraham Lincoln. Since then, Thanksgiving has been celebrated in the U.S. on the fourth Thursday of every November.
Fast Forward to Gratitude Today
While roast turkey, stuffing, and cranberry sauce are staples for the Thanksgiving holiday today, how often do we really practice gratitude? We complain about this and that. We get agitated when deciding what to wear, if we’re not served right away at a restaurant, and after a store doesn’t stock our favorite brand of coffee. But is it a surprise, given we live in an age of abundance? When it comes to our everyday needs and wants, we have variety right at our fingertips. We can have any type of food delivered right to our doorstep. Our phones ping notifications on today’s trending news. And if you’re looking for entertainment, just open up your internet browser. While these are all good things, we easily take what we have for granted.
People’s acts of kindness often go unrecognized. In many cases, the recipient fails to say a simple “thanks” or give any acknowledgement. In an everyday quest to get things done, people are consumed by their own lives and forget to take the time to thank others. It seems as if the original intent behind that first Thanksgiving feast has been lost with time.
The Benefits of Gratitude
Both giving and receiving thanks are important. But in order to understand why, we need to see the benefits. There are three main benefits to being thankful:
1. Strengthening social relationships.
Gratitude can help us befriend others, improve existing relationships, make amends, and recognize others’ good deeds. In romantic relationships, practicing gratitude for the little things can make all the difference. In one study, expressing gratitude towards the partner improved the relationship quality for both people.
Letting someone know that you’re grateful for the person’s actions, or simply for being in your life, can improve your relationship. It doesn’t matter whether the person is a stranger, friend, parent, relative, or whoever. Thanking others breeds positive feelings all around.
2. Improving our personal sense of well-being.
In a study, one group of participants wrote about the things they were grateful for, a second group reflected on the daily things that irritated them, and a third group wrote about their week with neither a positive nor negative slant. 10 weeks later, the grateful group was more optimistic and happier about their lives, while the group that focused on negativity was more likely to visit the doctor. Giving thanks is not only rewarding intrinsically, but it also helps us feel better about what we have. We’re more joyful overall. Even if you’re having a bad day or things don’t go the way you want, there are definitely some things that you have to be grateful for.
3. Maintaining good health.
According to one study, gratitude is linked to the quality of your sleep. People who reflected on the positive things that happened in their day had a better night’s sleep than those who with a negative outlook. The quality of your sleep is directly related to how you feel during the day and your overall health. Those who were less grateful were more stressed, anxious, and depressed. The opposite was true for those who were more grateful. To sum it up, here’s a quote from the Wall Street Journal article “Thank You. No, Thank You” on how gratitude affects our lives: “Adults who frequently feel grateful have more energy, more optimism, more social connections, and more happiness than those who do not, according to studies conducted over the past decade. They’re also less likely to be depressed, envious, greedy or alcoholics.”
How to Practice Gratitude
Now that we’ve seen all the benefits of gratitude, we need to incorporate more of it into our lives Practicing gratitude can easily be done using these three ways:
1. Keep a gratitude journal.
Jot down a few things you’re thankful for. Place a notebook on your beside table so that it’s convenient. The best time of the day to write in your journal is right before sleeping. That way, you can reflect on everything that’s happened during the day and you get a happier night’s rest. To start and end your day on a good note, try The Five Minute Journal. Remember to be specific. Instead of writing that you’re “thankful for your friend”, think of a specific example, such as “my friend shared her own experiences with work conflict, which helped me navigate a similar situation.” Thinking of particular instances forces you to think hard about the good things that have happened.
2. When in doubt, say “thanks”.
We often forget to thank people for the little things, such as lending a pen. Sometimes, we even forget to say “thanks” for the bigger things, such as gifts or loans. If you’re not sure what to say, a simple word of thanks does wonders in making the other person feel valued. If you met someone interesting at a networking event or completed an academic course, reach out and send an email to the person to thank them for what they taught you. Opening up the lines of communication can lead to opportunities down the road.
3. Use positive phrases.
When you’re faced with a dilemma, switch out those negative phrases for positive ones. For instance, I had a power outage that lasted for days. While it was definitely inconvenient, at least I had a chance to interact with people, free of electronics, and catch up on good old-fashioned books. Whether something is a problem or an opportunity depends on how you look at it. And the way you look at things changes your mindset, attitude, and actions.
A Simple Act of “Thanks” Can Blossom into Something More
The Pilgrims held a feast to celebrate the promise of a bright future. They made it through a difficult winter and recognized how much they had to be thankful for. They saw a place where they and their descendants could thrive. It’s interesting how such a simple, seemingly insignificant event would go on to become an important annual tradition. If only the Pilgrims who celebrated in those early days recognized the weight of their actions then.