Giving thanks for the power of gratitude

November 20, 2017

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. There’s the food, the gathering of loved ones, and for most of us in Michigan during my lifetime, the joyful or painful experience of gathering around the television to watch the Detroit Lions. (For the record, they are 36-38-2 on Thanksgiving.)

Many families add their own twists to the traditions. My wife’s family goes to the movies after the big meal. Then they come back home to eat steamed clams and pumpkin pie. Many people invite friends in addition to family. Some do charity work or run a community 5K. It’s a wide-open canvas.

But what I like best about Thanksgiving is the name itself. It’s both a name and action, and it is central to a habit that can change all of our lives. Giving thanks, being grateful, taking the time to be present and appreciative of life and its blessings is a cornerstone to well-being. And if success in giving thanks requires an entire day to be named after it, then so be it.

There’s been an emerging science around gratitude in recent years and its role in human happiness. Numerous studies attest to the health benefits of writing gratitude diaries and thank you letters. One study went so far as to measure the brain activity of people tasked with writing a nice note to someone. The result, according to the study abstract, was “both behavioral increases in gratitude and significantly greater neural modulation by gratitude in the medial prefrontal cortex three months later.” Translated that means people who expressed gratitude were more likely to continue doing so, even months later.

I try to practice gratitude in my personal life every day and as often as possible. But I also have taken to incorporating gratitude into my business activities. Once a week minimum, I make it a habit to sit down and write – not type – thank you notes to employees or colleagues. They usually go something like this: “I cannot say enough how grateful I am for the work you did on Project X. This work helps make us better and will help us to achieve our goal of Y. You have a great mind for this and it is really fun to work with you on it.”

It doesn’t take much time or effort – just a few scribbles on a card or slip of paper. But the impact can be profound. Reactions to such notes can be so powerful it makes me think there is a gratitude deficiency of sorts in the American social diet. We clearly need a dose of Vitamin G. I have no problem administering a small dose of it to my little corner of the world. In fact, writing these notes has become an important ritual for me, one that I look forward to. It starts by putting two cards and a pen on top of my computer keyboard before I go to bed. That way, in the morning, I cannot lose myself in emails or videos about sloths sleeping in teacups before I write two notes. It’s as simple as that, and it works. I also keep a gratitude journal for my wife and I present it – no longer a surprise – on our anniversary. She tells me about reading it when I am traveling.

Now, even though it’s Thanksgiving, I want to make a slight distinction between giving thanks and gratitude. In my mind, there’s a difference. You can give thanks, for example, for a beautiful sunrise, snow-capped mountains or for just being alive. And you should. It’s a beautiful world and we’re lucky to be part of it.

But gratitude, specifically, is an interaction between two people. If you look at the definition of the word gratitude, it’s about returning kindness. So a mountain may be beautiful and worthy of being present with, but it cannot technically be kind to us. Gratitude is about reciprocal human interaction, and practicing gratitude connects us together where and when it matters most.

With that in mind, I’m certainly grateful to you for reading this and for all the kindnesses I have received from so many of you. I humbly hope this small article makes your day better or at least prompts a moment’s reflection.

I wish you and yours a happy and gratitude-filled Thanksgiving.