There is a chill in the air (in New England anyway), we’ve “turned back” our clocks, and the fall foliage has peaked. This can only mean one thing — Thanksgiving, my favorite holiday, is fast-approaching. I love the simplicity surrounding the meaning of the holiday — it began as a gathering to give thanks for the bounty of the harvest. Today, for many, it has become a day to be thankful for all our blessings.

I don’t believe the Plymouth colonists and Wampanoag Indians who celebrated the first Thanksgiving almost 400 years ago were aware of the health benefits of expressing gratitude (who knows, though, maybe they were?) but in recent years, studies have shown that taking time in our lives to express gratitude can indeed have major health benefits.

Sonja Lyubomirsky, the author of The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want, says:

“Gratitude is many things to many people. It is wonder; it is appreciation; it is looking on the bright side of a setback; it is fathoming abundance; it is thanking someone in your life; it is thanking God; it is ‘counting blessings.’ It is savoring; it is not taking things for granted; it is coping; it is present-oriented.”

Lyubomirsky’s research concluded that there are real benefits to expressing gratitude. Those who are grateful are more likely to be happy, hopeful and energetic as compared to their less grateful counterparts. They also appear to have more positive emotions overall. It is interesting to note that those who are grateful also tend to be more religious or spiritual, empathetic, helpful and forgiving.

So how do we cultivate this gratitude? Scores of books and articles have been written on the subject, but for now, I’d just like to take a look at a “typical” Thanksgiving holiday in many homes:

  • We reach out to others. As we begin planning for Thanksgiving Day, we decide who to invite. In addition to immediate family, we might try to include good friends, or perhaps acquaintances who for, whatever reason, have nowhere to go to celebrate the holiday. Perhaps we remember those who have reached out to us in the past and let them know how much we have appreciated their thoughtfulness.
  • We shop for groceries, plan the feast, and cook. For me, this preparation of the meal involves a good deal of mindfulness. Simply put, mindfulness is the act of focusing on the present moment in a nonjudgmental way. It involves noticing and accepting what is. Engrossed in the holiday preparation, I am totally focused on NOW and the task at hand, and that can be incredibly calming. An added bonus is when family members join in to help. We spend quality time together, have fun, and create lasting memories.
  • We express our thankfulness. Before dinner, a lot of families somehow acknowledge this day of thanks. Some might pray, others might listen to speeches given by their hosts. In many families, everyone at the table takes a turn to say what they are grateful for. We let all our loved ones know how we feel. All these simple acts of gratitude can be amazingly powerful.
  • We should try to keep our expectations low. Dennis Prager, author of Happiness is a Serious Problem believes our expectations can undermine gratitude. He says, “The more expectations you have, the less gratitude you will have. If you get what you expect, you will not be grateful for getting it.” So, for example, instead of expecting everyone to get along, assume they won’t and be grateful if they do.
  • We watch the children. Joy, hope for the future, and living in the moment (aha, mindfulness!) are just some of the things we experience when we are blessed with little ones at our Thanksgiving table.
  • We give back. Whether through food drives or volunteering to serve meals at homeless shelters, many of us feel compelled to help others at Thanksgiving.

I do realize that Thanksgiving for some families is not always completely happy. Families have issues — some more serious than others. But gratitude comes into play in these situations as well. We can acknowledge whatever drama exists, but still choose to focus on the positive. For example, instead of bemoaning the fact that you have to be in the same room as your horrible brother, be thankful that you still have your horrible brother, and a home where your family can gather.

It is interesting to note that everything discussed in this post can be carried out by each of us in some way, shape, or form, every day, not just on Thanksgiving  (except for maybe preparing a huge feast!). Let’s take the lessons of this meaningful holiday to work toward happier, healthier, and more grateful lives.