The Impact of Thanksgiving on Christmas

The holiday season is notoriously stressful. Between shopping for dozens of people, decorating the house and tree, cooking extravagant, multi-course meals and being crowded into tiny spaces with lots of family members, you can empathize, I'm sure. The insanity and chaos that ensues from traditions such as Black Friday certainly doesn't help either.

As I sat in Sunday School yesterday morning, our teacher brought up a rather cool connection. I'm sure many of you smart cookies out there have already drawn this conclusion but it was new to me! He said that Thanksgiving comes at a time of year that perfectly precedes the Christmas season because it buffers the onslaught of Holiday stress with a time of gratitude. Though the histories of the two holidays are not related, it's quite incredible how one acts as the gate keeper for the other. The practice of being grateful that is often encouraged during the Thanksgiving holidays primes the heart and mind with contentment. As a result, you're more likely to have a greater focus on family and friends, more apt to give even if you don't receive and more inclined to get through the daily grind with minimal stress.

Thanks!: How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier by Robert Emmons

Thanks!: How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier by Robert Emmons

Thankfulness has such an incredible range of benefits that I would have to write a book to cover them all... oh look, someone already has!

Well-Being (Self)

A large body of research has contributed to a growing understanding of how gratitude plays into our general emotional state and resulting mental and physical well-being. As people are prompted to assess their situation in life and appreciate what they have as opposed to desiring what they don't have, their outlook on the world changes. This new perspective puts a greater emphasis on the non-material such as relationships, opportunities and experiences rather than on the material. Research conducted by Alex Wood, Stephen Joseph and John Maltby from the University of Manchester entitled, "Gratitude predicts psychological well-being above the Big Five facets" has also uncovered the direct impact of gratitude on our ability to recall positive emotion and experiences and as a result, improve major psychological pillars of our lives.

Gratitude improved the prediction of personal growth, positive relationships with others, purpose in life, and self-acceptance.
— Alex Wood, Stephen Joseph and John Maltby

But of course, you don't need me or hoity-toity researchers to tell you this. You feel it and know it in your heart every time you sit down with your family, gathered around that old, wooden dining room table and thank God for the abundance of turkey and cranberry sauce. You feel it when you lay back against a tree and listen to the fire crackle and the crickets chirp. You feel it when you curl up next to your spouse at night and feel the warmth of their body against yours. In those moments we feel gratitude for what we have (mostly non-material things) and we feel the all-consuming happiness that washes over us. We know what gratitude does for well-being... we just forget.


Altruism (Others)

I'll be honest, I wasn't quite sure what altruism meant when I first began doing my homework for this post. I guess you learn a new thing every day, right?

al·tru·ism  noun \ˈal-trü-ˌi-zəm\ : feelings and behavior that show a desire to help other people and a lack of selfishness

According to a study by David DeSteno and Monica Bartlett in 2010, "Gratitude and Prosocial Behavior", gratefulness has been proven to lead to increased altruistic behavior.

"These findings provide strong initial evidence that gratitude shapes prosocial responding by increasing the likelihood that one will engage in effortful helping behavior. Moreover, these findings clearly distinguish the effect of gratitude from that of a general positive state."

What I thought was neat is that, later in the study, they distinguish between gratefulness and indebtedness - both of which follow having someone help you. One (indebtedness) leads you to a feeling of obligation to that person and sometimes, regret that you let them help you because of your resulting indebtedness. The other (gratitude) leads you to a deeper connection with that person, an appreciation for them and a desire to deepen the relationship.

The results of feeling obligated to the person and deepening a relationship with the person are one in the same: a reciprocation of service. However, the obligatory service is an act of distancing yourself from the person by cutting the tie of indebtedness while service out of a deepened relationship is an act of drawing closer to the person out of love.

Two perspectives, two drastically different results.


The Gratitude Challenge

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.
— Philippians 4:6

Realizing the impact of gratefulness on our daily outlook made me begin thinking about how I can deliberately take action to cultivate an attitude of gratitude in my own life each day. So, for the next month during this Christmas season I will be Tweeting one or more things each day that I am grateful for. To help me stick with it, I've set an alarm to go off at 4:06pm each day (for Philippians 4:6) to remind me. If you would like to join, you're welcome to participate on social media or begin a gratefulness journal where you write down a few things you are grateful for each day.

May your days be merry and bright!