Of all the major holidays on the United States calendar, Thanksgiving is the holiday that totally “gets” camp. There are so many parallels – it’s not associated with any particular religion, rather, it’s all about getting together with the important people in your life. And there is lots of food (!), some sort of field sports, lawn games, or board games, and while sometimes the travel to get there is a hassle, when you reach your destination, it is so worthwhile. A huge aspect, of course, is being thankful. The expression of gratitude is at the heart of the holiday, and it’s also a core value at camp.
During the summer we talk about gratitude for a few reasons. It’s a good practice for any young person who is happy to be given an opportunity to thank whoever made that opportunity possible, more opportunities might come along as a result. We also remind campers (and staff) how the simple act of thanking someone for things big and small, extraordinary and mundane, does wonders for the person receiving the thanks. It’s a good thing to do, and it can turn someone else’s day around. On another level though, we talk about the practice of gratitude as another aspect of well-being. For not only does gratitude make the person being thanked feel good, it also makes the person giving thanks healthier and happier.
We can think of gratitude as a life orientation towards noticing and appreciating the positive in life. Noticing and appreciating. We’ll get back to this shortly.
The fact that gratitude has positive implications for mental and physical well-being has been suspected for a long time, but has only been confirmed by clinical psychologists in the last 20 years or so. While a substantial body of literature has been built up linking gratitude (as an emotion) to all aspects of well-being, there is still some uncertainty about the exact mechanisms that lead from gratitude to well-being.
There are several possibilities laid out in the Nov 2010 issue of Clinical Psychology Review. The first is that gratitude is simply a part of the mental scheme by which we assess the world. Another possibility is that grateful people have better coping skills, addressing problems and mitigating toxic stress more effectively. It has also been suggested that, given that gratitude is a positive emotion, that grateful people feel more positive emotions generally, which is protective mentally and physically. Further to this idea is that gratitude plays an important role in strengthening the positive emotional states, which may allow individuals to both cope with crises more effectively as well as pursue opportunities more readily. A final possibility, not mentioned in the 2010 study, is what Robert Putnam calls “social capital”. Social capital, that is the number and strength of the social connections one has, is strongly linked to physical and mental/emotional health, as well as community health. Naturally, people who are grateful for that which others do for them, and express this gratitude, are more likely to have stronger and more plentiful social connections.
Which is all well and good. We know gratitude works. We’re not sure exactly how it works, but we know it is effective. Really importantly, multiple studies have shown gratitude can be increased with relatively simple practices. How do we make it work for us? Remember from just up there, those two words. Noticing. Appreciating. Both are habits. Both require a small amount of concentration and effort, but unless we are distracted, it really isn’t difficult.
A simple practice might look like this.
Notice - Take a few minutes on a regular basis – every morning or evening, or once a week might be a good starting point. List all the things you feel grateful for at that moment. Big and small. Near and far, both physically and in time. Don’t worry if the list looks short the first few times. The more you practice, the easier it gets. Try to make it a habit. Stick with it. Keep the lists, throw them out, whatever. Making the list is the key.
Appreciate – is there someone, something, on the list who you can thank? A person who made a difference for you? A place that helped? Think of ways you can thank them. It might be a parent or sibling. A hug and a “thanks for…” will never, ever in the history of the world, be unappreciated. Write a note. Send an email. Post a review. The research is clear. This is powerful. For both parties. Think about that. It is so cool that just by writing a list of the blessings in your life, you can improve your health. By saying “thank you” to someone, you can improve their health too. It’s like a super power.
Happy Thanksgiving. May yours be filled with lots of family, friends, food, and silly lawn games (if you don’t have the snow we do in Maine; board games if you do!)…