I know that giving thanks is really hammered home on Thanksgiving, but I do believe it’s something people need to be more mindful of not just during the holidays, but all year round. I also think it’s important to not simply say, “I’m thankful for…” but to find someone to thank, someone who has done something for you, knowingly or unknowingly, that you really appreciate. You can also thank yourself-- for sticking with a difficult project to completion or for doing things that are good for you and nondestructive.
When I taught in Shanghai, the international department (which was made up of teachers from all over the world-- Canada, the United States, the Philippines, China, Colombia, England, Australia, South Africa) would get together for a Thanksgiving potluck. We would all also get a couple of cards and we could choose someone else in the department to write thank you notes to. On one hand, it might feel like a hokey office activity that everyone will hem and haw at having to participate in (actually it was optional), but I think, ultimately, it was a great idea. Our jobs, our lives, can often feel unrewarding. Getting a note that says what you did was valuable to someone can feel extremely rewarding, just being acknowledged can be validating.
As a journalist, I sometimes get thanked by the people I write about, and I find that immensely rewarding. It really means a lot that someone has read my work and taken the time to reach out and show gratitude. I save all of these notes (if they’re an email I’ll print it out) in a folder because, if I’m having a bad day, it feels good to look through them again to remind me that what I do matters to some people.
I kept all the notes I got from students, too, when I was a teacher, including one that said I was a great teacher because I’m nice and smell good. Oftentimes, people appreciate you for things you don’t even realize, like smelling good, and thank you notes are a great way to express that.
At a mental-health panel discussion I attended earlier this year, hosted by Women United, they talked about little things people can do everyday to help boost their overall happiness and one of these things was to write three things you’re grateful for every night for a period of time (two weeks, 21 days or three times a week consistently, I’ve seen different recommendations). If you adhere to that, repeating every six months, it helps significantly increase optimism according to a study from Harvard. Again, it might seem hokey at first, but it’s a great way to reflect on your day and, especially if you’re naturally pessimistic and easily remember problems and flaws, reflect on what you have to be grateful for.
The panel also recommended writing a gratitude card for someone in your life. The speaker gave the example of her husband writing a note to his brother, who had helped care for him and keep in line growing up. Like the activity my school did in Shanghai, this is a great way for you to feel good and for the person you’re writing to, to feel good and appreciated.
So this Thanksgiving, yes, give thanks, go around the table and say one thing you’re thankful for, reflect on the food you have to eat and the family and friends you have, but try to make it a habit instead of a once-annual thing. Holidays serve to remind us of what’s important but we easily forget once the day is past.
This Thanksgiving weekend, I’ll pull out those notes and cards I’ve saved and maybe I’ll send out a couple of my own, too.