Schweitzer’s quote seemed especially timely given the arrival of the Thanksgiving holidays and this year’s rare convergence of Thanksgiving and the first day of Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights.
Both holidays are celebrations of religious freedom and of survival against all odds. Both remind us to be grateful to be alive and to have food on our table, since not everyone on our planet is so lucky. That being said, expressing thanks is both a universal urge and a crucial strength that can be cultivated, not just at Thanksgiving but on any day.
The world’s religious teachers, ancient philosophers, and indigenous people have spoken about the importance of gratitude for over a thousand years, seeing it as an important virtue to be cultivated and practiced. In religious traditions, the saying of grace before each meal is a way of thanking God for the food on your table.
Most parents teach their children the “magic words” of saying “please” and “thank you”. We have always known intuitively that grateful people seem to be happier with their lives and also more able to confront life’s challenges.
The More the Better
Scientists were latecomers to this awareness. Only in the past ten years have researchers started to take a hard look at exactly how and why gratitude leads to increased health and happiness. Now, a growing body of research is emerging that verifies not only this but much more.
Psychologist Robert Emmons from the University of California at Davis is one of the prominent researchers on gratitude, now conducting highly focused, cutting-edge studies on the nature of gratitude, its causes, and its consequences. Many other researchers are following suit.
They have found that gratitude helps boost the immune system and is in itself a form of stress reduction. We are also learning that adversity can, paradoxically, bring an increase in thankfulness. People who have faced losses early in life often have higher levels of optimism, suggesting that adversity can add to personal growth over time.
Research on happy, healthy families has found that the parents in these families emphasize the positive, yearning to bring out the best in one another in spite of individual differences in temperament, talents or interests. They teach core values such as honesty, fairness, kindness and responsibility, and typically foster a spiritual or philosophical perspective that includes serving something greater than just ourselves.
Rather than focusing on complaints or how the glass is half full, we want to teach children–and remind ourselves–how to learn from mistakes, apologize for wrongdoings, and have gratitude for what we already possess. When we cultivate our positive feelings of joy, empathy, gratitude and love, we are opening our hearts and activating pathways in our brain that lead to more helpful thoughts and actions.
If you did not come from such a family, you may need some help to be able to change your thinking towards a more optimistic, positive point of view. Negative thinking and complaining can be habit forming. And to break any habit takes conscious effort and deliberate practice. Make it a goal to be more positive but don’t be hard on yourself if you slip into doom and gloom.
A great place to start is with one of the books of psychologist Martin Seligman, the father of positive psychology. Seligman is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and the current Director of their Positive Psychology Center. Author of many classics in this rapidly rising field, check out his book Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life, published in 2006.
Not only does this book give the reader an overview of the theory and research on both optimism and pessimism, it includes tests for both parent and child to determine levels of positive and negative thinking. The final third of the book provides the most hands-on learning with worksheets for both parents and their children.
If you would prefer to be inspired through film rather than through a book, depending on the age of your children you could watch The Lion King and discuss the virtues illustrated in this film classic. Two other favorite movies of mine to help jumpstart more positive thinking are Pay It Forward and The Pursuit of Happyness. Watching a movie together at home, taking the time to talk about what you each have learned, can be a fun way to cultivate more positive outlooks and behaviors in yourself and your kids.
Music is yet another universal way to be inspired and uplifted. What are the songs that build you up rather than bringing you down? I love “Climb Every Mountain” from the Sound of Music and “Anthem” by Leonard Cohen. For songs and activities that bring positive messages to young children, check out the album on Happiness and Attitude at KidsEPs.com.
If you want to be inspired but don’t have time for a whole movie, take ten minutes when you can stop, breathe, and open your heart to the exquisite beauty of nature. Louie Schwartzberg has been doing time-lapse photography of flowers for thirty years. In a Ted talk, Nature, Beauty, Gratitude, his stunning images are accompanied by powerful words from Benedictine monk David Steindl-Rast on being grateful for every day.
The German mystical theologian, Meister Eackhart, teaches that “If the only prayer you said in your whole life was, ‘thank you,’ that would suffice.” This quote made me think about how most people generally pray for something. And we generally pray for somebody, ourselves or our loved ones. We might ask for good health for ourselves or our family members, for food and shelter, for love, for an end to suffering, for miracles, for a job, or simply for strength or wisdom.
Today, and this Thanksgiving, my prayer is simply this: to be grateful for what is. All of it. The blessings and the suffering, for they both are teachers, and they walk hand in hand. Or as Leonard Cohen reminds us, “There is a crack in everything–that’s how the light gets in.”