It'll be all too easy to get distracted this Thursday from the true meaning of the holiday, what with the turkey, the stuffing, the sweet potatoes, the cranberries.
And the pies. The many, many pies.
But the actual point of Thanksgiving is in the name, and gratitude not only makes you feel good, but it can also do good things for your physiological health.
So says Wilkie Au, a professor of theological studies at Loyola Marymount University who specializes in Christian spirituality and spiritual direction. Despite his focus, he says gratefulness is hardly limited to any one denomination or belief system, and describes it thus:
"If you imagine your heart as a vessel, it's the experience of your heart filling with joy when you're aware of things in your life like random kindness, unmerited gifts, forgiveness, second chances, opportunities that defy logical circumstances, good coming out of evil or misfortune," said Au, who made sure to distinguish between gratefulness and thanksgiving (the concept, not the day).
"Gratefulness is more of a contemplative, quiet awareness," he said. "That's your heart becoming aware, filled with joy. And when it spills over into expression, that's thanksgiving."
Au says thanksgiving can't exist without "generating gratefulness" first. "Otherwise, it's just kind of a Hallmark 'Thank you, thank you'," he said.
Beyond fostering an inner well of thankfulness, Au said several studies have associated a "gratitude disposition" with better overall health.
"People who are more predisposed to giving thanks, more prone to gratefulness, are marked in clear ways in terms of being less depressed, less anxious, less envious, less materialistic," he said. They're also less inclined to evaluate their successes in terms of performance, which can lead to self-esteem problems down the road.
"And they're more generous and empathic and forgiving," Au added.
The "why" is less clear, but the evidence is empirical, he said.
"I think in some ways people who are grateful are more settled in their life," said Au. People who are envious of others rather than grateful for what they have set themselves up to spoil any chances of contentment. He explained that, like depression, gratitude and envy each have their own "somatic" effects – effects that manifest in the body.
Like most other practices, Au said gratitude requires cultivation and intentionality.
"I think gratitude is a developmental kind of thing," he said. "We're meant to grow in our capacity to be grateful as we grow older."
One way to start that habit is a gratitude journal, Au said – take time each day to write down the things for which you are thankful. Or write a gratitude letter.
"Think of someone who's still alive for whom you feel a lot of gratitude, and spend 10 minutes writing a letter to that person expressing it," he said.
Photo by A. Brewer via Flickr Creative Commons.