Sunday, November 29, 2009

Thanksgiving is Over- Do I Still Have to Be Grateful?

Here we are, the weekend after Thanksgiving. The leftovers are gone, black Friday is past, and everyone can resume normal activities. Does this mean I don't have to be grateful anymore?

Being "Thankful" or grateful, gets top billing this time of year, and there are untold articles on the subject. Is it just a fad? Are we only grateful in November? The purity of the Thanksgiving holiday, in sharing an abundant meal with people we love is a lovely ritual, but how many emerge as relaxed and filled with warm fuzzies as anticipated?

I am a big fan of gratitude - it works for me. I filled out a gratitude journal for a solid year when Oprah touted its benefits, and I have read studies that demonstrate cultivating an "attitude of gratitude" can literally help you sleep, decrease stress and improve the overall quality of life. I subscribe to the 42 day "World Gratitude" online affirmation program, I love the new field of positive psychology, and I even took the online gratitude test, and got an A. (If you want to take it too, here is the link).

Apparently, it is ok to "fake it 'till you make it" with gratitude. Just thinking of any old thing you are grateful for is supposed to help rewire your system to keep the Scrooge away. According to Sonja Lyubomirsky, a psychology professor at the University of California, Riverside, the key with gratitude is consistency. Just being grateful at Thanksgiving is not going to cut it. "If you don't do it regularly you're not going to get the benefits. It's kind of like if you went to the gym once a year. What would be the good of that?"

Yet still, I wonder if that is really true. What is the difference between being thankful and grateful? One area that I have yet to see explored is the quality or depth of these emotions. Saying "Thanks" is one thing, but how often are we overcome with such a deep visceral emotion of authentic gratitude - that it takes the breath away? At our Thanksgiving table, everyone goes around and shares what we are grateful for. It warms my heart, and it is a practice I think is vitally important to teach my children. But, is it a whole-bodied experience of gratitude? Not really.

I sat down and tried to think of the times I was utterly and truly overcome with gratitude. Two stories came to mind: one was earlier this year when we hired a team of housekeepers to come to my disaster of a house with 4 kids under 14 trashing it daily - and give it a thorough cleaning. When I came home, I had never seen my house looking so sparkling and organized. I burst into unexpected tears. The tears were of sheer and utter gratitude.

The second moment of unforgettable gratitude was when my infant twins were a month old. I was beyond sleep deprived, and a woman I barely knew showed up at my door with a rotisserie chicken, a bag of rolls and some salad, so I wouldn't have to make dinner. I will never forget how my jaw dropped and how I held those bags like they were made of sheer gold. I really could have kissed her hands.

Am I grateful for my husband and my kids? Of course. I am grateful to have a house, car and our health too. So, how come the moments that stuck out were about such minor things? I believe the true alchemy of deep gratitude is unleashed - when paired with the unexpected. The kindness of strangers, the helping hand when you were not looking for it, the turning of the tide just when you were on your last breath- that is gratitude in full glory.

According to Margaret Visser, author of the new book, Giving Thanks, the Roots and Rituals of Gratitude, other cultures are a bit wary of the American preoccupation with gratitude. We seem to be conditioned to say the words, "thank you," so often that Spaniards think us insincere. In their culture, if you have to say the words, it means you are distancing yourself from the one's you love - as it is unnecessary to express thanks for that which is automatically done.

If you lived in Japan, the equivalent of expressing gratitude literally translates to the words, "I'm sorry." The Japanese culture is so polite, that when someone offers you an act of kindness, the appropriate response it to be apologetic that you have put them out in any way.

Even if gratitude is a uniquely American obsession- only good things can come from such a lofty focus. Maybe Congress can practice a little Gratitude and see if it helps induce a little cooperative progress, and maybe American's at large can lead the way in demonstrating the outward benefits. In the meantime, have you experienced any of those particularly poignant moments of "Unexpected Gratitude?" Love to hear them!

You can follow this story on Facebook and Twitter, and click on Become a Fan to receive weekly updates. Thanks to all my regular readers, and the new friends I meet each and every week! Writing this column is one of my great sources of joy, and something of which I am abundantly grateful.

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