The psychology of giving thanks

Today America celebrates Thanksgiving Day. This annual tradition always falls on the fourth Thursday of November having begun in olden times as a celebration of having gathered the harvest in. Other countries Canada, Grenada, St Lucia and Liberia have their own Thanksgiving Days but it is not a widespread phenomenon.

As a Brit, I’ve only seen the romanticised version of Thanksgiving Day shown in films where it is portrayed as family coming together and feasting on roast turkey dinner and pumpkin pie. While that aspect is very much like our Christmas Day, I like the idea of taking time to sit quietly (although I’m not sure Americans ever sit quietly!) to count your blessings.

A few years back Gratitude Diaries were all the rage. People were encouraged to make a list each day of ten things they had to be grateful for. People who tried this reported that a month later they were happier with their lives. While this all sounds very New Age there is a simple reason why it works.

Writing a list of things to be thankful for gets you to think about your actual life. It gets you to look at what you actually have and what those things bring to you. Looking at it another way, it gets you away from wishing and dreaming about how you’d like your life to be. The blight of modern life is thinking happiness is out there.

While there’s nothing wrong with setting goals and dreaming big; for many people their emotional happiness is invested in believing that if they could only “have this” / “have that”, “be this” / “be that”, “achieve this” / “achieve that” then they would be happy. Except when they finally achieve their goal or dream, they discover it doesn’t make them happy.

There are many tales of Olympic gold medallists who have spent years training hard, sacrificing until they finally stand atop the podium singing their National Anthem and watching the flag be raised. It brings them immediate happiness but in the weeks which follow they feel an emptiness and uncertainty about what to do next. Why has the thing they focused so hard on, which was meant to bring happiness and fulfil them, failed to do so? Some athletes reorient themselves and set new goals; others wander aimlessly.

Giving thanks or writing a gratitude diary is one way of slowly changing your mindset to a more positive one. By doing it regularly it becomes a habit. The way you look at life is simply a lens. You can always choose whether to see the good or the bad. What you see leads to how you feel about your life.

Being thankful or writing gratitude diaries focuses us on the life we are actually living and with that comes the opportunity to make changes appropriately. If we’re unhappy with what we’ve got, chasing a goal is unlikely to make us happier. It simply distracts from the root cause of the unhappiness and helps us continue to avoid tackling it. Equally by focusing on what we do have, we begin to realise what is already good and matters to us. By knowing what makes us happy we can chase hopes and dreams that we know will be worthwhile.