By Francis Koster, Ed.D.
As we come to the end of the turkey and dressing, and your visiting family packs up (to your regret and relief), it may occur to you that it is odd we devote only one day a year for giving thanks. Think about how out of proportion this is to the total number of days of celebrating patriotism (July 4), or remembering the fallen (Memorial Day), or celebrating the rights of the working class (Labor Day), or wearing masks of dead people (Halloween), or celebrating events in our spiritual traditions.
I find it interesting that many of those days circle around the idea of birth and death, but little around appreciating and extending life, and making it better.
If we have just one national day a year dedicated to being thankful, perhaps we need to practice more of it privately. There are several reasons to do this — first, it makes you happier and live longer. Second, it makes others happier and live longer. And third, it lowers health-care bills for your family and the taxpayer.
And it is simple: You just keep a daily gratitude journal in which you write that day’s events for which you are grateful. And all sorts of scientifically documented good things happen.
One of the key underpinnings of this technique is that in order to write down what you have gratitude for, you have to do two things: (1) you must name it, and (2) you must recognize its source. It could be for the wonderful weather that you attribute to God. Or it could be for that nice thank you note you got from your son-in-law. By acknowledging the source, you remind yourself of your relationships and their benefits. This leads to being more mindful of them and making investments in them, which in turn leads to others increasing their sense of gratitude, and it will come back to you in other gestures.
Another impact is that people who keep a gratitude journal have been found to practice greater altruistic behavior. They help others more without expecting payback. This leads to a happier, healthier circle of friends, which in turn helps generous souls spend their days surrounded by happy people — a new, positive take on “what goes around, comes around.”
For many years, psychologists and others theorized that each person had a natural set point for personal happiness — that some folks were born happier than others, and that the dour liked leading their life with a frown, that they were happiest being unhappy! More recent research shows this is not accurate. In fact, it is now known that everyone benefits from specific techniques to become happier, and among the main beneficiaries are sourpusses. A prominent researcher in this field, Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky and her co-author Dr. K.M. Sheldon, found that up to 40 percent of our happiness might result from actions we choose to do to make ourselves happier. In other words, you can reset your happiness thermometer yourself.
In one interesting finding, Lyubo-mirsky found that while “naturally happy” people and the the “naturally unhappy” both may have a bad experience, the “naturally unhappy” people remember the experience as a bad one, and the “naturally happy” people remember it as a milestone from which they have progressed ... sort of a “boy, life is so much better now” reference point. In writing down the things for which they’re grateful, the grumpy person writes, “boy, I am glad that is over,” and puts it in perspective.
Lest anyone think this is just a “woo-woo,” feel-good idea, research shows it has positive impacts even for people under the care of a doctor for mild depression. One study done at York University in Canada found that people who kept a daily gratitude log had less depression and were more satisfied with their lives. And the impact seemed to be bigger for people who were most self-critical.
There are many guides out there to look to for inspiration. A good place to start is on a website called Greatergood.berkeley.edu, which has an entire section devoted to helping people keep gratitude journals.
We are living in troubled times, and some of the solutions seem complicated and difficult. In this case, we can be thankful that one tool exists we can pick up all by ourselves, and benefit both ourselves and others.
Just write down every day what you are grateful for. The world will be better for it.