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Giving Thanks Matters for Wellbeing

This week, the US celebrates Thanksgiving, a major occasion as big, if not bigger, than Christmas. It is a time for families to come together and eat, drink and be merry, all underpinned by a festival of giving thanks for harvest and other blessings. Of course, we don’t observe this here in the UK, but perhaps the concept of giving thanks for things in our life is something we should spend a bit more time thinking about.

Us Brits can sometimes feel that overt gratitude is a bit over the top, too effusive and showy, and we tend towards more muted displays of thanks. This is just a cultural and personality difference, but to downplay this sentiment runs the risk of either leaving others feeling taken for granted, or becoming complacent and not actually appreciating what we have.

What does it matter though? As long as we say thank you to Granny for the socks she gave us for our birthday, haven’t we done our duty and ticked all the boxes? Isn’t that gratitude?

Not exactly; the feeling of gratitude goes far beyond this transactional relationship to giving thanks. It’s one thing to say thank you for a gift, but another to be truly grateful for the things and people we have in our lives. Gratitude is about feeling valued, and seeing value in others, about recognising the good things in life even if not everything is perfect.

Have you ever heard the phrase ‘comparison is the thief of joy’? It epitomises the struggle for gratitude – society is driven by wanting to be better, have more, do more and generally wanting to out-perform those around us, and while this may drive economies and innovation, it destroys our ability to recognise the value of the things we already have. By comparing ourselves, and everything we have and do, to those of our peers, we stop feeling joy about any of it. Whether we just passed an exam, bought the new shoes we’d been saving up for, or spent a fun day at the park with the kids - it immediately starts to fade into ‘what’s next?’.

The very act of gratitude is also good for us as individuals – there are numerous positive benefits, including:

  • Boost in happy and positive mood

  • Increased satisfaction and contentment with life

  • Decreased importance placed on materialism and associated comparisons

  • Improved resiliency, optimism and self-esteem

  • Development of tolerance, humbleness and understanding

  • Disconnection from negative thoughts and sources of stress

  • Strengthened relationships between families, friends and groups

  • Enhanced physical effects, including improved sleep and diet, lower blood pressure and better immunity

Having the opportunity to reflect on how you feel about events, people or things allows you the clarity required to see just how important they are, and thus be genuinely appreciative of them. This brings back the joy in the small things, which has the knock-on effect of being proud of your achievements, cherishing the people you have around you, and feeling more positive and satisfied with life.

So how do you do it? What tools do you need to be grateful? As it happens, just your mind (but sometimes it can help to write it down too!) All you need to do is stop and take a few minutes to think about the good things in your life – the very act of acknowledging them helps to cement that positive thought in your brain. There are other ways too – you might want to thank someone for being an inspiration or a support to you, or do something kind for another person to show you are grateful. Meditation and/or prayer can also be a way of expressing gratitude, as well as taking a moment to appreciate the wonder of the natural world around you.

If you think about it, every time you recognise when things have gone right or someone cares about, you are getting a little reward. If you do this multiple times a day or week, that amounts to numerous positive boosts that really add up to a warm cosy blanket of self-worth and contentment. This can have a transformative effect on your self-esteem, helping you to recognise your own value to the world.

So next time you open a present from Granny and it’s more socks, take a minute to really think about what it means – hint: it’s not about the socks!

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