Tomorrow is Thanksgiving in the United States, which ought to mean we Americans are at the height of the annual Gratitude Season. We’re supposed to be thinking about all the ways we’ve been blessed in the past year. All the things and people and experiences we’ve enjoyed. But do we?
Some of us undoubtedly do. I know this, because I’m one of that “some of us.” But I also think it’s likely a lot of us don’t. Many people scorn the very idea of “let us count our blessings” as childish or corny. We live in a scary world, they’ll tell us. There are wars, a looming climate crisis, and serious threats to our democratic form of government abound. I’ve heard several people recently opine that if they were in a position to have children today they wouldn’t. “What kind of world would we be bringing them into?” they ask.
When everything you see is grim and horrifying, how can anybody celebrate Gratitude Season with honesty? What is there to be grateful for? I would argue “a lot!” But although it’s right and appropriate to celebrate “Gratitude Season” in times of plenty, human psychology and medical science show us it’s even more important to celebrate it when things are scary.
Gratitude Season in Frightening Times
It seems at first counter-intuitive to look for things to be grateful for when it feels like everything is going down the drain fast. But that sentence holds the key to this question: it “feels like.” It’s easy to feel despair if we start doomscrolling or meditating on our fears. But those are not healthy long-term responses. They definitely do not make our lives – or anything else – better.
For one thing, obsessing over how terrible everything is makes us even more depressed. It also is an excessively self-centered thing to do. If “it’s all about me,” then anything that inconveniences, discomforts, or scares “me” is horrible. Congratulations, you’ve just rediscovered your two-year-old mindset.
Gratitude Season demands that we look beyond ourselves. Yes, we’re grateful for our blessings, advantages, or good things. But to whom are we grateful?
Now, we might labor under the delusion that we “did it all by ourself.” But, hello. Pro tip: no human can honestly make that claim.
In actual fact, there are people, institutions, and other forces in the world that have made the good things in our lives possible (and yes, there are good things). When we open our eyes to see them, we look beyond ourselves. Then we have a better chance to notice that things aren’t quite a completely horrible disaster everywhere, just yet (possible exceptions: if we live in Gaza or eastern Ukraine).
Gratitude Promotes Mental Health
Our annual Gratitude Season is a chance to improve and broaden our perspective. We may indeed be personally living through a terrible period in our lives. A moment when everything is hard, nothing seems fair, and we can’t seem to get a break. Nearly everyone hits a stretch like that at some point, and some of us seem to live there perpetually.
But life is not a “horror contest.” There is no comparing levels of grief or hardship, in which the most miserable person “wins.” Grief is hard. Deprivation, abuse, and oppression are hard. But we’re a group-centered species, not at our best when self-centered. No matter how miserable we may feel, looking beyond ourselves to the needs and positive contributions of others improves our mood. And more positive emotions improve our outlook.
Sometimes we look beyond ourselves and find ways to help those around us. And sometimes we look beyond ourselves to sharpen our awareness of all those who’ve helped us. Both of those approaches have a home in Gratitude Season, and both can dramatically improve our attitude.
What in This World is There to be Grateful About?
Back in 2017 (when I had more time to write blog posts!), I set myself a challenge: Find a whole week of things to be grateful for, that were big enough topics for a blog post. Ultimately, it turned out not to be that hard. I ran out of energy and time for the project before I ran out of things to be grateful for, but perhaps you’ll find my list interesting.
During the Gratitude Season of 2017, I was explicitly grateful for religious freedom, for my family, for peace, for my callings, for food security, for companion animals, and for the arts. The links take you to each, if you want to know what I said about them.
It’s likely your list might be different. Here’s a challenge: come up with your own list of seven things you’re grateful for. You don’t have to blog about them unless you just want to, but give the effort a genuine try. Really, actually, make that list of seven and write it down. Share it in the comments below, if you want – I’d love to see your list.
“Walking the Walk” During Gratitude Season
By now I hope you’ve come to a place where you think maybe this Gratitude Season thing might actually not be total hokum. (Oh! Here’s another thing to be grateful for: the word “bunkum,” and its 19th century meaning. Particularly apt for our present day!).
You may have followed my prompt and listed your Seven Things (or not). But now what? Maybe you’d like to go beyond just feeling grateful, and find a way to be actively grateful. I might be able to help out there, at least with a short list. I’ve been at this “Gratitude Season” project for a while, and in that time I’ve written blog posts about “6 ways to be creatively grateful for a good Thanksgiving meal.” There also are the ever-popular “Three Creative Ways to Thank a Veteran” and “Three Great Ways to Thank First Responders.” Another thing you might do to show gratitude is pay it forward by volunteering somewhere.
Our annual Gratitude Season is a time-tested opportunity to improve our outlook, battle our depression, and make our world a better place. But to benefit from it we have to accept the challenge it brings. We have to be open to changes in our behaviors and thought patterns. Even if it’s just in a small way, will you accept the challenge?
About our Author Jan S. Gephardt
Jan S. Gephardt is the Chief Cat-Herder and Manager of Weirdness (which includes acting as art director and chief of production) for Weird Sisters Publishing. She’s a frequent contributor to The Weird Blog. She also makes fine art fantasy paper sculpture and writes science fiction mysteries for dog-lovers, about the XK9s, a pack of uplifted police dogs who solve crimes and shake up the status quo on a far-future space station. She observes Gratitude Season every year.
Many thanks to the Museum of Fine Arts Houston for the Freedom From Want painting photo, from which I extracted a square detail. The article from which it came, “Norman Rockwell’s Four Freedoms,” offers a nice glimpse of the time and circumstances when it was painted, meaningful aspects of the painting’s creation, and the philosophy of the artist.
The disasters depicted in the second image came from a range of sources. Clockwise from upper left, we see photos from Gaza (Anas Mohammed/Shutterstock via Arab Center Washington DC), Ukraine (Daniel Leal/AFP via Getty Images and Politico), a satellite photo of Tropical Storm Idalia (NOAA/AP, via Wall Street Journal and USA Today), a flag amid rubble in the aftermath of a tornado in Cookeville, TN (Jim Watson/Getty Images via USA Today), and Lahaina, HI on fire (Matthew Thayer, AP, via USA Today).
Design work for the third image is my own, based on the blog post header template I used for the “Seven Days of Gratitude” series of posts in 2017. The fourth image, presumably sourced from the group that currently runs the “Enough is Enough” Facebook Page in honor of fallen or injured law enforcement officers, is one I used in my 2016 post, “Three Great Ways to Thank First Responders.”