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The Power of Thankfulness Well Beyond Thanksgiving 

It's so easy to be grateful when everything is going well.

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Latte with foam art in the shape of prayer hands
Ann Cutting
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Pre-pandemic, any words that evoked feelings of gratitude and thankfulness were the “it” words trending on social media and in real life. Women of all ages were thankful for foam latte hearts, girlfriend getaways and family vacations.

On Instagram, Twitter and Facebook, hashtags called out the highly filtered things the poster was thankful for by using #gratitude, #grateful, #thankfulness and #blessed.

Of course, it’s easy to be thankful when everything is going well. But when there’s work, parenting, stress, special needs, COVID-19, health issues, global unrest and a raging pandemic, it’s not so easy. Starting a gratitude practice may fall on the long list of abandoned New Year’s resolutions, alongside working out, dieting and a break from wine.

We want to start preparing for Christmas reunions with loved ones, then we remember travel restrictions already in place for the holidays. New England’s leaves haven’t even started changing and already we may be looking at another season of outdoor dining during the bracing Northeast winter.

Yet with the return of pumpkin spice, Halloween and countdowns to the December holidays, it’s inevitable that we find ourselves thinking of thankfulness as the days grow shorter and we prepare to celebrate the most delicious food of the year, no matter how sparsely populated our dinner tables might be.

Disclaimer: I acknowledge the dark, fraught history of the original Thanksgiving holiday, and we should all work toward reparations just as diligently as we seek the perfect stuffing recipe.

As history, including my own, tells us, it’s the darkest days — the ones that feel the most hopeless — that sharpen our need to focus instead on what we have in our lives that deserves thankfulness.

When my twins were still in the single digits, I was battling new-parent anxiety, a full-time job and a child with unexpected medical issues. The layered effects of the relentless stress morphed into what I realized was a daily catastrophizing practice. My involuntary addiction to the “what-ifs” turned them into the worst-case scenarios, so that even when I woke up to bright sunshine, things were dark inside, dawn until dusk.

One day when I didn’t recognize this glass-half-empty gal and I felt like a stranger to myself, I remembered living in New York City in my own apartment, working my dream job in publishing. Every single day I felt like I was unwrapping a beautiful gift. This memory flooded me with nostalgia and hope, because I knew in that moment, surely, that I could find a single “gift,” big or small. It was then that I committed to finding a gift for 365 consecutive days.

Today, more than a decade later, it’s day 4,195 and I’m devoted to my daily gratitude practice more than ever. I’m here to tell you it’s good (great) to give thanks well beyond Thanksgiving. Thankfulness is my secret to living a happy life despite the stress of everything from parenting to a pandemic. So don’t save your gratitude for Thanksgiving Day or for the December holidays — or you will miss out on so many daily gifts. I know, I know. People are tired. Parents, grandparents, kids. Teachers, lawyers, accountants. We have baked, organized, donated, exercised, binged all the shows and read all the books.

And we often feel like we are DONE. But we can we bring real mindfulness to overused hashtags and filtered photos so that they mean something and deepen our lives and community connections. 

On the dawn of Thanksgiving, being grateful for what is richly ours — family, food, friends — allows us to breathe deeply and savor this moment, and to not stress over what we imagine is to come. Mirroring my own stress-reducing experiences writing in gratitude journals and blogging are many scientific studies showing how gratitude boosts mind and body health. Take a 2018 Positive Psychology report, “The Science of Gratitude,” which revealed many benefits, including increased self-esteem, improved relationships and even reduced blood pressure! In 2016, Inc. magazine ran a piece titled “Gratitude Physically Changes Your Brain” about an Indiana University study concluding that “practicing gratitude seems to kick off a healthful, self-perpetuating cycle in your brain” — real scientific proof that committing to a gratitude practice can actually change our brain.

I’m convinced this happened to me. I was interviewed about my three-year-old gratitude experience in the June 2013 issue of the now defunct More magazine. In “Change One Habit, Change Your Life,” written by Brian Alexander, I explained how I started a gratitude blog to help me change my habit of catastrophizing about the unknown and uncertainty surrounding my son’s special needs.

I am living proof of the gifts of having a gratitude attitude. Finding a daily gift to be thankful for has healed my life. With awe, 11 years later, these benefits remain today.

  • Happiness
  • Increased positive mood
  • Less materialistic
  • Less burnout
  • Better physical and mental health
  • Better sleep

With a refrigerator filled with food for my family’s Thanksgiving table, I am newly grateful — and aware of — the simple things we often take for granted: a delicious meal, hugs from kids, our health. Long after your green bean casserole has been devoured and your adult children have gone back to college or to their own families, being thankful, fueled by love and hope, is what really keeps us going.

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