Thanksgiving is around the corner, and for some, it is synonymous with an enjoyable time spent among family and close friends. For others, it can be stressful, to say the least. Whether or not it is your belief to express gratitude on Thanksgiving as part of a formal celebration, it’s a good time to at least talk about thanks, appreciation, and gratitude. This can be a heavy topic so buckle up.
Gratitude and Humility
A key component to expressing thanks is the admittance of humility. The experience of humility, or being in a humble state, should not be in the colloquial sense of humility, implying submission, deference or insignificant. Rather, the experience of humility, as expressed in many Jewish texts (e.g. R’ Saadia Gaon and throughout Mussar and Chassidus), suggests a flavor of assertiveness in the submission; i.e. a significant insignificance. Meaning, it is a sign of strength and self-esteem in being humble and pushing aside one’s immediate needs.
For example, the root of the word “Modeh” from the morning prayer Modeh Ani means thanks. “I thank You for returning my soul this morning.” However, another meaning of the word Modeh is to confess or admit. In this sense, as R. Shimshon Pincus explains, you are expressing that you needed Someone else to return your soul. When you state this first thing in the morning, you are admitting that there is Something greater than you, that there is a larger purpose. This admittance, a characteristic of humility, is the gratitude and, for many, requires internal strength. To be grateful to someone for an act they’ve done for you is to admit to them that they have helped you in some way. Thus, the first step toward gratitude is to recognize how you have been aided, i.e. humility. Next, you express that gratitude to that person honestly and sincerely.
How To Express Gratitude When It’s Easy
Sometimes you need to just say it. To demonstrate, I’d like to begin with expressing my gratitude to the Refuat Hanefesh Administrative Team for this invitation to explore the topic of gratitude. There – that was easy. What am I thankful for? The ability to learn something and share it with others. Those are two values I hold dear. In full transparency, I am also thankful for some public exposure and the opportunity to connect.
Expressing gratitude, in fact, helps the giver as much as the receiver. Maybe more. Psychologists Watkins, Uhder, and Pichinevskiy (2015) found that a treatment group focused on expressing gratitude was associated with increased well-being and also contributed to increased accessibility to positive memories. A quick Google Scholar search shows numerous articles identifying similar mental health benefits – published in the past few years alone. Expressing Gratitude might actually help the giver more than the receiver. So if it is easy, say thank you.
How To Express Gratitude When It’s Not Easy
If you’re having a tough day (or week, or month, or…) that’s a great time to start making a list of things you are grateful for. It sounds counterintuitive, but it can jump-start your day, reconfigure your brain, and lead to other positive experiences. It is no wonder that in Judaism we begin our day by expressing thanks, saying the Modeh Ani prayer to what many believe is the Ultimate Giver. Start your day off that way and it can improve from there. (On that note: Modeh Ani can be an automatic experience that many robotically mutter. Next time you say it, think about one thing you’re grateful for. Or make a list the night before and have it ready in the morning. Try that for a few days and let me know how that goes. Make Modeh Ani Mindful Again.)
Note that the reverse of gratitude, ingratitude, can be a painful and anger-filled experience. Interestingly, internalized humility – according to Maimonides – is an antidote to anger (see the Laws of Personal Development, Chapters 1-2). Perhaps it is not a stretch that expressing gratitude and, in turn, experiencing humility, can contribute to decreased interpersonal anger (and perhaps increased mental health benefits).
So, how do you express gratitude to someone that you still harbor feelings of anger towards (as some may feel around the upcoming Thanksgiving dinner table)? Similarly, how do you grant forgiveness to someone you are still hurt by?
Tips For Showing Gratitude When It Isn’t Easy
Creating a plan to say thank you in this scenario is obviously very tough. To explore how someone has aided you when they’ve hurt you requires a deep and introspective experience. Here are some tactics to help with gratitude, when you don’t really feel it.
1. You can implement a well-known trick for actors who despise one another but are contractually forced to work on a project together. Find something, no matter how small it may be, that you can appreciate in the other and focus on that. The key here is recognizing that you have gained something, no matter how small it is.
2. Fake it ‘til you make it. Say thanks even when you might not mean it or don’t believe it needs to be stated. Try it and see how you feel. Start with something easy, like thanking the Starbucks barista when they get your drink right, and try it for a few days. This is helpful for getting in the gratitude spirit and routine of expressing thanks.
3. It might be helpful to find some me time over Thanksgiving to ensure that it is a smooth process. Activities of self-care can help you take some time to appreciate what you can be thankful for.
You might also choose to go on gratitude escapades: short wilderness trips through nature. Those, ski trip, or getting lost in the city can remind you what is important in life and cultivate a deep experience of gratitude (and humility).
4. Make a journal of your gratitude every day leading up to Thanksgiving. Begin (or continue) journaling every evening. You can use a fancy journal or a piece of paper. One sentence per day is enough and can be a lot. On Thanksgiving, you might write: “I am grateful for the delicious turkey that we have on Thanksgiving.” Personally, I don’t like turkey. However, I am certainly grateful for my partner’s efforts in preparing it. So I’d probably write: “I am grateful for my partner’s efforts to make Thanksgiving a delicious and enjoyable experience.”
Here are some prompts to help you get started:
Today, I feel gratitude for… (insert anything, seemingly menial and grandiose).
Today, I am grateful for… (insert an action that someone did) because it helped me… (insert any beneficial outcome, seemingly menial or grandiose).
Push yourself to use positive language. For example, reframe “I am grateful for the loud person finally leaving the room” or “I am grateful for that person because they shut off that annoying phone” into “I am grateful for the additional silence today because it allowed me the space to focus and remain calm.”
Sometimes you just have to grab gratitude. If you can’t sincerely express gratitude, then do it haphazardly. Fake it ‘til you make it. Remember, gratitude, though not always easy, has the potential to benefit all parties involved. Some might wish to implement an inter – and intra – personal exploration program through consistent gratitude journaling and, for some, a simple “Thank You” will be enough. Regardless, this Thanksgiving, let’s make some conscious efforts to implement gratitude in our lives again and reap its benefits.
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