CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- With all the emphasis around the Thanksgiving season, you may have stopped to ponder your blessings. Or, you may be so busy during this holiday period that it's hard to find time to ponder much of anything!
I've often wondered why our feelings of gratitude can be so fleeting. You know, like when we have the flu and all we want is to get our health back. The first few hours of feeling better, there's a feeling of relief, and then we plunge right back into our preoccupied thoughts and "to do" lists. What's up with that?
It's likely because of homeostasis, the body's tendency to return to its natural state. Remember that we're wired with the fight-or-flight response. This likely came in handy during prehistoric times -- maybe not so much now. Or, definitely in different degrees. There aren't as many saber-toothed tigers around, but stresses come in lots of sizes and shapes. And I believe that's a reason we return to a guarded state.
Still, it would be nice to have those "heart space" feelings of gratitude last a bit longer, while diminishing the endless chatter inside our heads. Generally, this chatter revolves around the past or the future. And that means we're missing the present. So, if you find yourself continuously thinking about something in the past -- or jumping ahead to plan every detail of the future -- stop and bring yourself into an awareness of gratitude. That will bring you back to the present moment.
Research has shown that we can benefit greatly from showing gratitude. According to "Psychology Today," being grateful for what we have and expressing thanks directly to a friend or colleague has a significant and lasting effect on well being and happiness.
Psychologist Sonja Lyubominsky, author of "The How of Happiness," has empirically measured these effects and has quantified how much happier acts of gratitude make one feel and for how long. It turns out that maintaining a gratitude journal for only one week makes one noticeably happier even three months later when compared to a control group.
Author Ran Zilca notes that we also benefit from reading and learning about the things others are grateful for. Scientists think the reason for this phenomenon is that knowing about others' gratitude inspires us to cultivate an optimistic attitude and to feel more positively about the future.
So, if you start to feel guilty because you're not being grateful, just turn it around. Realize it's a mini wakeup call to be aware of those blessings in your life. But don't beat yourself up about it. It's healthy to experience a range of emotions. And you don't need to add guilt on top.
Guilt is actually fear turned inward, and there's enough fear going on in the outer world. If you or your loved ones are going through a crisis, take solace. Go ahead and wallow in your pain. Cry on someone's shoulder -- or into your pillow -- if you need to. Not that I (or anyone else) needs to give you permission. Sometimes it's just helpful to hear someone acknowledge the pain.
It's all a matter of perspective, anyway. Whatever we're going through, there are always examples of those going through worse things. It's all relative, though. (Or maybe it is our relatives!)