Gratitude

Last Thanksgiving, I was out on a hike with Sheila and some friends when I received a phone call from a colleague congratulating me on having my Thanksgiving Op-Ed published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Since I did not have a chance to share it with you last year, I wanted to post it in time for this year’s holiday. I hope you find it meaningful.

“I’ll be sitting down for a virtual Thanksgiving celebration with my family this week to recognize and acknowledge the blessings in our lives and to share some fun stories about how pandemic life has changed us all.

Thanksgiving is the most psychologically powerful holiday we celebrate as a nation. For me, as a psychologist, this holiday always gets my attention as to how we think about and express the fortunes we have in our lives and have experienced even in a year like no other.

As my own thoughts drifted to the holiday, I’ve recognized that I have not always done a very good job of describing what I am thankful for in my life. It is not that I don’t have much to be grateful for but is instead a recognition that my gratitude expression is at times perfunctory. I might share that I feel grateful for everyone being together or maybe that I love that we can share Aunt Dote’s double baked potatoes recipe. I might hear from other family members that they are glad that their job is enjoyable or that the kids are doing well in school or that everyone is healthy. Those are all good things to be grateful for, but I have to admit I don’t usually feel the power of gratitude that should accompany something that we are truly blessed for receiving. The write G.K. Chesterton wrote that “gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.”

Like most feelings, real gratitude should create a physical sensation in our bodies and, for gratitude, I believe it is firmly planted in our hearts. We use expressions to express gratitude like “my heart feeling full,” or that “my chest is bursting with appreciation,” or as Thornton Wilder wrote, “We can only be alive in those moments when our hearts are conscious of our treasures.”

Medical research has gone further than our own perceptions to document that experiencing and expressing real gratitude are good for us. In one study, a group wrote about what happened in their day for which they were grateful, while another group wrote about their irritations that occurred during the day. After 10 weeks, the group that wrote about gratitude was more optimistic and happier about their lives. Even studies in the workplace show that managers who say thank you to team members found their employees to be more productive.

Given that this idea of gratitude and appreciation is so important, I’ve been asking myself how I can do better at sharing and expressing true gratitude It’s gotten me thinking about how I can deepen my own sense of thankfulness, and I’ve come up with three things I can do to build into a new habit for appreciation:

Express my gratitude to another person: Far too often, I express gratitude as a concept such as “I’m grateful for such beautiful weather.” I know that appreciation is real, but so what? Far more meaningful is for me to express my thankfulness to another person. Even a seemingly trivial appreciation like for putting away dishes or for something bigger like calling and asking how I am feeling during the midst of the pandemic can make such a powerful impact. This action also makes the gratitude two ways.

Create more acts of kindness: I find small acts of kindness like letting someone into traffic or bigger acts of kindness like reaching out to a friend who is struggling to be very personally rewarding and satisfying. As has been often said, “giving of ourselves gives us much to be grateful for.” I’ve been trying to be conscious of doing this at least once a day, and whenever I do, I always find it brings that smile to my face. I wonder if I would be five times happier if I looked for ways to be kind five times a day.

Savor: One of our pandemic gifts is that we’ve been hiking more of the wonderful trails that we have here is Western Pennsylvania. We’ve got our hiking poles and boots and are taking on all kinds of paths. Each time we go out, it is not about completing the loop but to take in the beauty. We stop and probably enjoy nature more than we do walking the path. I’ve been bringing that practice home by savoring small things during my day such as pausing and looking out the window or appreciating taking time to play with my dog, Cody.

I’m going to try to follow the advice of Abraham Maslow, who suggested that we “have a wonderful capacity to appreciate again and again, freshly and naively, the basic goods of life, with awe, pleasure, wonder and even ecstasy.” How much more special can I make my Thanksgiving and every day if I just stop and pay attention to all that I have to be grateful for in my life?”

Enjoy your time with family and friends!

Ó Richard Citrin, 2021

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