Thursday, November 27, 2008

An Attitude of Gratitude

I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought, and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder. – G.K. Chesterton

For some of us in America, Thanksgiving is a quasi-religious holiday, a day for the lengthiest and most earnest of prayers before the family feast. For others, it’s the kickoff to the annual season of extravagance—a time when a great abundance of food, money, and hearty good wishes are expended and consumed.

This year, with the dismal economic situation being what it is, there’s a lot of talk about cutting back. Indeed, for the over 1 million people in the U.S. who have lost their jobs in 2008, there may be no choice in the matter. So maybe this is the time to suggest something I’ve thought about for the past several years: making Thanksgiving synonymous with National Mental Health Day.

As wise people have known for millennia, thankfulness is good for you. Like the Golden Rule, the old adage “Count your blessings” has long been a commonly recommended folk remedy for much of what ails us. Since the 1950s and ‘60s, when social scientists began in earnest studying people’s attitudes and behavior, there have been many reports that suggest a link between happiness and longevity.

And I submit that happiness is impossible without gratitude. (Can you think of anyone you know who is both happy and un-grateful—who cheerfully focuses attention day after day on the bad things that have happened or the wrongs that others have done?)

With the help of imaging techniques (such as PET scans), scientists can now actually see the effects that certain moods or types of thinking have on the brain. They know that thinking about what we have, rather than lamenting about what we don't have, actually changes both the chemistry and the physiology of the brain. The thoughts we habitually think reinforce patterns in our brain cells that make it easier to keep thinking the same kinds of thoughts—positive or negative, optimistic or pessimistic, angry or tolerant.

But the nice thing about all that is that, any time we choose, we can literally change our mind.

So along with the tryptophan we get with our turkey (which makes us nod off after dinner), I suggest that we all dose ourselves this day with a little serotonin, the chemical in the brain that makes us feel happy. It’s available, free of charge, for simply choosing to shout or whisper, aloud or in our heart of hearts, “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”