The holidays, and especially Thanksgiving, are supposed to reflect the principle of gratitude, being thankful for the people, places, and things that have blessed our lives. But, ironically, in these uncertain times blessings may appear to be in short supply. Most of us are bearing extra tension that can be amplified by the approach of the holidays themselves. Many LGBT persons experience significant emotional stress during this time, and for good reason. Money problems may seem overwhelming and emotional stress may result when our friends, and sometimes even our partners, aren’t welcomed by our families of origin.
So how can we achieve an attitude of gratitude? Or should we, as one client of mine pointed out, "save it for the greeting card companies?" No, I don’t think so. Gratitude, the practice of being grateful, is increasingly being recognized not as a cliché or as something to be cynically ridiculed, but as a powerful tool that can actually change our outlook and our moods.
I know from personal experience that there is nothing harder than being grateful when things are difficult. Whether due to personal illness, a major loss, or even worry generated by watching too much cable news, the idea of having gratitude when you are experiencing pain or fear seems ludicrous, if not offensive. I have had many clients stare at me in disbelief when, during a painful period, I suggest they try and find even a few things for which they might be grateful.
Most simply ask, "why?" The reason is because it not only makes you feel better, it may even change the world (more on that in a minute). The shift in personal consciousness created by the act of identifying gratitude can move us from a state of need and resistance to one of acceptance and healing. I recognize this is sometimes easier said than done. In the past year I have experienced sadness and pain around the declining health of a parent. I certainly haven’t yet found a way to be grateful for that situation, but even on the worst days I can be grateful for a ground orchid in my yard, or my dog’s relentless playfulness, or the steady support of my partner. Taking a few minutes to consciously acknowledge those things somehow breaks a spell and brings me back into balance.
While many spiritual traditions have long recognized the wisdom of gratitude, its power is now being increasingly documented in scientific literature. For example, one study by Emmons and McCullough in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology used a double blind study to demonstrate that a conscious focus on blessings has empirical emotional and interpersonal benefits. Many other studies link gratitude with numerous positive effects ranging from well-being to goal attainment.
Even if being grateful can help us feel better, can our personal expression of gratitude have an impact on the world? Increasingly, many people think so. A number of metaphysical traditions (as well as quantum physics) acknowledge the power of our thoughts to change our very cells and even our reality. Today there is a heightened awareness about the potential of shifting human consciousness based on what we as individuals think about and what we do.
The internet is increasingly being used to facilitate such shifts. I recently learned of one free site (www.gogratitude.com) which is attempting to create a wave of gratitude that will sweep the globe. One can sign up to receive 42 brief, daily messages that help develop such awareness. To date, over one million people have signed up.
Thanksgiving and the other holidays can be inherently stressful, but we do have the power to choose where we lavish our attention. Personally, I feel a lot better if I can find at least something to be grateful for. And when I can’t, there is help – here comes my dog with a toy in his mouth.