Sitting down to a delicious homemade feast is worthy of feeling grateful. The average Thanksgiving spread is more food than many people around the world will see in an entire month, even a year, for some. Yet despite our unbelievable abundance, many of us are plagued with entitlement and feelings of expectation and privilege that make the humbling act of showing true gratitude incredibly difficult. But we might want to take a stab at regularly practicing gratitude, as research shows it is actually quite beneficial to our health and the health of those around us.
A study conducted by researchers at the University of California, Davis and the University of Miami found that being grateful for extended periods of time leads to an overall happier state of consciousness and increased levels of optimism than those who show minimal or infrequent gratitude.
Being grateful can also decrease aggression, particularly when provoked, according to a 2011 study out of the University of Kentucky's College of Arts and Sciences. "If you count your blessings, you're more likely to empathize with other people," said psychology Professor Nathan DeWall who led the study. People who are highly grateful are also more prone to express sensitivity and concern for others, the research suggest,s which makes them generally less aggressive than people who are not as sensitive. According to DeWall, there was "converging support for the hypothesis that gratitude is an antidote to aggression."
But what is gratitude, really?
You may have sat down to many Thanksgiving tables where you've been asked to articulate something you're grateful for, such as the bounty of food, being close to loved ones, your health, etc. But for many, it's an uncomfortable
NY Times best-selling author Erich Origen wrote, "Asking "What is gratitude?" is not that different from asking "What is love?" It's a deceptively simple question, and hard to put into words." He explains, "Gratitude does not mean denying reality, sadness, grief or loss. On the contrary, it's about acknowledging all those things. In fact, feelings of sadness and loss can often lead you to greater feelings of gratitude."
Ready to give real gratitude a try?
You can start by keeping a "gratitude journal." Note five things each day you're grateful for. Keep it next to your bed and read the day's list before you go to bed and again in the morning.
Take time to appreciate the small things—the sun on your face, the fresh air, the magical mystery of simply being alive. We can find much to be grateful for in the present moment, especially when we're not expecting anything else to happen. Author Eckhart Tolle wrote, "Do I want the present moment to be my friend or my enemy?" The present moment is inseparable from life, so you are really deciding what kind of relationship you want to have with life."
Do things that others will be grateful for. Helping an elderly person across the street is not only an opportunity for them to feel grateful; it's one for you, too. Why? Because someone else allowed and accepted your gift into their life—it is a true gift of recognition and acknowledgement.
And be grateful for when you're not grateful, too. That's right; experience gratitude for all of the emotional realms of being human, even the dark ones. Sometimes, that means just allowing yourself to be angry or irritated. Those moments are important teachers and guides. We can learn how to cultivate more happiness and love in our lives by learning how to move through and direct our frustrations; and showing those difficult emotions gratitude is an excellent place to start.
Keep in touch with Jill on Twitter @jillettinger