Updated: Nov 12, 2019
By Ellie Cobb, Ph.D. - Thankful Director of Psychology
As Americans, we celebrate thankfulness intentionally this time of year. Even the word ‘gratitude’ suddenly gets catapulted into the forefront of conversation. Although for many, the holidays can be a time of stress, challenge, and pain. Some may find it difficult to generate gratitude during the holiday season or wonder whether thankfulness has a place for them during this season.
What often gets overlooked about thankfulness is that it can actually exist with pain and hardship. In fact, the most impactful time to intentionally cultivate gratitude is during challenging times. Gratitude does not erase difficulty, rather it diffuses our pain by expanding our perspective. When we chose to see even the smallest glimmers of good in our life, we take ourselves out of a narrative solely dominated by hardship. From a scientific perspective, being intentionally thankful actually activates a different part of the brain than being stressed or in pain. Thus, thankfulness literally brings more of the brain online when we feel distressed. This allows us to regulate our emotions more effectively and cope with our lives more effectively. We can even trace the origins of gratitude in this country to show how it can be a powerful complement to difficulty.
The American day of Thankfulness, Thanksgiving, actually grew out of hardship. The first documented Thanksgiving emerged as a result of a very difficult year when half the pilgrims passed away due to harsh conditions. So Thanksgiving was created as a time to be thankful for what they did have left. Later, numerous days of thanksgiving were designated by the national government during the American Revolution in the 1780s. Eventually Thanksgiving became a national holiday in the middle of the civil war in the 1860s. Subsequently, Thanksgiving was solidified on it’s current date in the 1930s following the Great Depression. The very historical roots of thankfulness in our country represent the power of turning to gratitude to persevere through hardship and to exist with difficulties.
Choosing to be thankful in the face of challenge creates a full picture, where hardship is honored and hope is created by celebrating even the smallest goodness in life. Gratitude does not require positivity or happiness, it can grow out of pain and exist alongside challenge. Thankfulness is always available to us, regardless of how we feel or what we face. When we start intentionally cultivating thankfulness, we start to shift our experience.
Studies show that those who experience regular gratitude show significant reductions in the stress hormone cortisol and increased levels of the feel-good chemical dopamine. This makes thankfulness a virtuous cycle in the brain and body. The more thankfulness we feel and express, the more benefits we derive, and therefore, the more motivated we are to engage in this behavior in the future. So we can all utilize this “season of thankfulness” as the motivator to start our own cycle of gratitude.
Find a little glimmer of gratitude today. Then find another little glimmer tomorrow. This glimmer will grow over time as it gets more and more attention from you. The thankfulness you feel and express this Thanksgiving season can instigate a cycle of gratitude & wellbeing that builds to create a powerful positive effect for you.
When you feel this positive effect, eventually all months will become thankful months and all seasons will become seasons of gratitude.