When you arise in the morning, give thanks for the morning light, for your life and strength. Give thanks for your food and the joy of living. If you see no reason for giving thanks, the fault lies in yourself.
-Tecumseh, Shawnee leader
Wouldn’t the world be a better place if every day had a little bit more of the essence of Thanksgiving? Although it may seem at first glance that the holiday is all about turkeys, yams and other scrumptious food and flowers that adorn our tables, these things are but the material trappings.
The deepest essence of Thanksgiving is the presence of family and friends coming together for a time-honored tradition of joyful celebration with the deliberate practice of gratitude as the central focus. The ritual reminds us to be grateful that we are alive and have food on our table. Not everyone is so lucky.
A Holiday with Ancient Roots
Although Thanksgiving as a national holiday is a largely American and Canadian tradition, it’s celebrated all over the globe by many different names and types of rituals. Thanksgiving is the North American version of ancient harvest celebrations that have taken place for thousands of years whenever crops were reaped and sowed.
For example, there’s the Festival of the Harvest Moon in China or the yam festival in Ghana, Africa, or the Chu Suk in Korea. Expressing thanks is a universal urge and a human strength that can be cultivated, not just at Thanksgiving but on any day.
All of the world’s religious teachers, ancient philosophers, and indigenous people have spoken about the importance of gratitude, seeing it as an important virtue to be cultivated and practiced. In religious traditions, saying grace before each meal is a way of thanking God for the food on your table.
Most parents teach their children the “magic words” of saying “please” and “thank you”. We have always known intuitively that grateful people seem to be happier with their lives and are more capable of confronting life’s challenges.
Research on Gratitude
Scientists were latecomers to this awareness. Only in the past ten years have researchers started to take a hard look at exactly how and why gratitude leads to increased health and happiness. Now, a growing body of research is emerging that verifies not only this but much more.
Psychologist Robert Emmons from the University of California at Davis is one of the prominent researchers on gratitude, now conducting highly focused, cutting-edge studies on the nature of gratitude, its causes, and its consequences. Many other researchers are following suit.
As it turns out, gratitude helps boost the immune system and is in itself a form of stress reduction. And adversity can, paradoxically, bring an increase in thankfulness. People who have faced losses early in life often have higher levels of optimism, suggesting that adversity can add to personal growth over time.
Parenting with a Positive Spin
Research has found that parents in happy, healthy families emphasize the positive, yearning to bring out the best in one another. They teach core values such as honesty, kindness and responsibility, and typically foster a spiritual or philosophical perspective that includes serving something greater than just ourselves.
Rather than focusing on complaints or how the glass is half full, we want to teach children—and remind ourselves—how to learn from mistakes, apologize for wrongdoings, and have gratitude for what we already possess. When we cultivate positive feelings of joy, empathy, gratitude and love, we are opening our hearts and activating pathways in our brain that lead to more helpful thoughts and actions.
Films and Music That Inspire
If you’d like to be inspired through film, depending on the age of your children, you could watch The Lion King and discuss the virtues illustrated in this film classic. Two other favorite movies to help jumpstart more positive thinking are Pay It Forward and The Pursuit of Happiness. Watching a movie together at home and taking the time to talk about what you each have learned can be a fun way to cultivate more positive outlooks and behaviors in yourself and your kids.
Music is yet another universal way to be inspired and uplifted. What are the songs that build you up rather than bringing you down? I love “Climb Every Mountain” from the Sound of Music and “Anthem” by Leonard Cohen. For songs and activities that bring positive messages to young children, check out The Golden Rule song at Happy KidsSongs.com.
If you want to be inspired but don’t have time for a whole movie, take ten minutes when you can stop, breathe, and open your heart to the exquisite beauty of nature. Louie Schwartzberg has done time-lapse photography of flowers for thirty years. In a Ted talk, Nature, Beauty, Gratitude, his stunning images are accompanied by powerful words from Benedictine monk David Steindl-Rast.
Learning to Love What Is
The German mystical theologian, Meister Eckhart, taught, “If the only prayer you said in your whole life was, ‘thank you,’ that would suffice.” This quote made me think about how most people generally pray for something, and we generally pray either for our loved ones or ourselves. We typically ask for good health, for food and shelter, for love, for an end to suffering, for miracles, for a job, or simply for strength or wisdom.
Today, and this Thanksgiving, my prayer is simply this: to be grateful for what is. All of it. The blessings and the suffering, for they both are teachers, and they walk hand in hand. Or as Leonard Cohen reminds us, “There is a crack in everything—that’s how the light gets in.”
Don MacMannis, Ph.D., and Debra Manchester- MacMannis, MSW