This article first appeared in my newsletter October 7, 2016. Click here to sign up to receive my online newsletter.
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When I was a child, I was told to “Count your blessings.”
The advice didn’t make me happy. It was usually said when I wanted something I didn’t have. The advice and whatever blessings I noticed felt to me like the consolation prize – what I settled for instead of what I really wanted. “Count your blessings” was right up there with cod liver oil – things that are supposedly good for you that feel wretched.
I have a different perspective now.
During the past several decades, I have learned through experience (first by accident and then by design) that the more I focus on things I appreciate, the happier I am.
Being thankful turns out to be an act of self-interest!
You might already have experienced that being grateful is good for your sense of well-being and your state of mind and mood. Now there is research to demonstrate that gratitude is good for your physical and mental health and your ability to achieve goals.
The Research Project on Gratitude and Thanksgiving was conducted by Dr. Robert Emmons of the University of California at Davis, and Dr. Michael McCollough of Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas.
The study required several hundred people in three different groups to keep daily diaries. The first group kept a diary of the events that occurred during the day. The second group recorded their unpleasant experiences. The third group made a daily list of things for which they were grateful.
The results of the study showed that daily gratitude exercises resulted in higher reported levels of alertness, enthusiasm, determination, optimism and energy. The gratitude group experienced less depression and stress, was more likely to help others, exercised more regularly and made more progress toward personal goals.
According to the findings, people who feel grateful are also more likely to feel loved. Gratitude encouraged a positive cycle of reciprocal kindness among people because one act of gratitude encourages another. The researchers suggest that any of us can increase our sense of well-being and create positive social effects just from counting our blessings.
As an experiment heading into Canadian Thanksgiving weekend, I decided to consider things to be thankful for that are not the obvious ones that first pop into my mind – treasured people; living in a country of greater freedom and safety than in many parts of the world; the beauty of changing seasons…
Here are three things I thought of that I don’t usually even notice.
1. I’m alive! I am now more than ten years older than the average life expectancy in the year I was born. During my lifetime, average life expectancy has increased by about 20 years in Canada, US, UK and Australia (countries with readers of this newsletter).
When I consider my last ten years – which included joys and sorrows, achievements and disappointments, turbulence and stability, the births of another generation of precious family members, profound inner changes – I would not have missed a minute of it.
2. The kindness of strangers. I’m blessed to be surrounded by friends, relatives and colleagues I can count on to have my best interests at heart and I’m thankful for that every day. In the past few weeks, I’ve witnessed random acts of kindness by people with no vested interest – strangers holding doors and helping move heavy things; passengers switching seats on a plane so two people could sit beside each other; volunteers helping family members of children needing medical care far from their home. That’s heart-warming.
3. The luxury of inner exploration. For the past few millennia, most of our ancestors spent most of their time simply surviving. Who had time or inclination to reflect on the meaning of life? It recently occurred to me that my love of personal reflection time would not even have been possible in the lives of most people on the planet. The opportunity for spiritual growth might be the greatest gift of all.
So what are you thankful for? Thinking about it might give you more things to be thankful for!