What to Focus on This Thanksgiving, Whether You Celebrate or Not

With Halloween a few weeks behind us and Thanksgiving just around the corner (tomorrow, for those who follow it), perhaps you've noticed that everyone in the world might seem hyperfocused on holiday preparations right now. That can mean winter break from school or time-off requests from work. That can mean exchanging gifts and cards at some point. That can also mean -- perhaps with Thanksgiving most of all -- cooking and feasting, which may necessitate a lot of housework to host friends and family, or bracing for a collision of different personalities if your hope is to simply survive the impending Thanksgiving social gathering(s). 

The anticipation can be enough to freak anyone out, and indeed, I often see many clients feeling more anxious, sad, and stressed than usual starting this time of year. In the hubbub of getting ready for Thanksgiving, many of us often get so caught up in logistics and planning that we may end up losing sight of what we are trying to honor -- which, in the spirit of Thanksgiving, is GRATITUDE.

What is gratitude?

"Gratitude" derives from the Latin word gratia and colloquially tends to mean gratefulness, thankfulness, and appreciation. In practice, gratitude is a conscious acknowledgement of the various good, positive, tangible or intangible experiences that we are all gifted in our lives. At any moment there is goodness around us, no matter the circumstance and no matter whether we are aware this goodness exists. If you're spiritual or religious, you might feel the source of goodness in your life comes in part from the grace of a larger power: God, another deity, the universe, karma, etc. If you're not spiritual, perhaps the source of goodness in your life comes from other people, enjoyment of nature, or the recognition that life and conscious thought itself is a miracle of biological and neurological science, from which we all benefit and for which we all must be grateful.

Why is gratitude important?

While causation is still unclear, psychology researchers have significantly and consistently found a correlation between gratitude and happiness. Studies have shown that people who write about their grateful thoughts and feelings tend to feel more optimistic about their lives in general, and also tend to exercise more with fewer doctor visits, suggesting that gratitude has the power to improve one's outlook on life and may be associated with more positive health outcomes as well. Additional health benefits can include boosts to our immune system, drops in stress hormone production and blood pressure, and increased sleep quality.

In relationships, other studies have found that partners who express feeling grateful for one another tend to also feel more positively toward each other in general, and additionally seem more comfortable addressing issues with one another, suggesting that gratitude even has the power to improve relationships when practiced well. This has been shown in the workplace as well, with individual self-worth, trust in coworkers, and overall work relationships tending to improve with each "thank you" offered by supervisors or exchanged between colleagues. 

All that said, it is immensely important for our mental and emotional health to be able to identify and express gratitude whenever and wherever it can be found -- ideally in a consistent manner throughout the year in daily life, last but not least during the hectic and holiday season. How nice that our next holiday is dedicated entirely to gratitude!

So have you taken time out of your Thanksgiving planning to contemplate, appreciate, and express gratitude lately?

If not, I would encourage you to do so now. Go ahead. Take a minute. It's important. Not sure how? You can choose to feel and express gratitude in a variety of ways. Here are a few tips to get you started.

  • Gratitude for the past.

Recall a positive memory and acknowledge it as a blessing. This can be any experience of goodness from your distant childhood or recent past, though for the purpose of this holiday-centric post, I might encourage you to recall a past Thanksgiving experience which you found particularly enjoyable. You could be remembering a favorite dish, a favorite friend or relative, or some other unexpected surprise that brought everyone good cheer. Think of this memory in as much detail as you can. Then give mental thanks to everyone involved in the creation or execution of that experience -- or if you were the only one involved, then give thanks for past-you gifting you with that piece of history that you still remember to this day.

  • Gratitude for the present.

What elements of positivity can you find in your life today, in this moment? Here's a thought to start you off: you're reading this blog right now. Take a second to become aware of the miracle of your eyes processing both the light around you and the letters in each word on this page, the breath going in and out of your lungs, the thoughts passing through your mind as you read each word and understand the sentences that form as a result. Then apply that same process to the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and feels of your Thanksgiving feast. Maybe you're still preparing for the feast? No problem, apply that process to every taste test you initiate in the making of your feast, or in every meal(s) you have left before the feast arrives. Whatever the case may be, meditate on your feast. 

  • Gratitude for the future.

Cultivate a hopeful and optimistic attitude for events and experiences that have not yet come to pass. For this thought exercise, ask yourself what you can look forward to at the end of Thanksgiving season, when the prep-work is long done, maybe after the feast has been cleaned up and the leftovers shared. Are you eager to start setting up decorations for the next big holiday, or are you simply looking forward to eating leftover turkey sandwiches and relaxing in a tryptophan-driven food coma for the next week? What other incredible aspects of your life will you be thankful for after this Thanksgiving holiday passes?

Gratitude is tied to mindfulness in the conscious acknowledgement of goodness, which can in turn help people recognize positive emotions, experiences, and relationships moreso than negative ones, and to cope with adversity in a more emotionally resilient manner when challenges arise. Practicing gratitude is one of the simplest and most transformative things you can do for yourself -- and for loved ones around you who will subsequently benefit from changes in your internal outlook and outward expressions.

If you find yourself feeling frazzled, drained, worried, or otherwise stressed from your holiday planning and socializing, please take some time out this Thanksgiving season to practice some gratitude. It's never too late to start. 


Happy Thanksgiving to those who celebrate, and happy opportunity-to-practice-gratitude for all!