The week of Thanksgiving is the official start of my favorite time of the year.
I’m not alone, right? I mean, what’s not to love about twinkling lights, bright colored packages tied up with strings, Christmas trees with heirloom ornaments, fridges stuffed with goodies, and delicious meals with holiday music strumming cheerfully in the background?
Just thinking about it gives me happy goosebumps.
And yet, as a brain researcher, I know that this can also be a time of great sadness for some.
That in the midst of glad tidings of comfort and joy, many do not feel particularly comforted or joyous.
For many, the holiday season just underscores their grief, loneliness, and pain.
If you count yourself among this group, this post is for you. And even if you don’t, this post is also for you, because we can all use a reminder to be thankful.
Two Things that Steal Gratitude
Off the top of my head, I can think of two reasons why we may not feel particularly thankful.
The first is, we may be dealing with a recent loss in life: a relationship, an important role, a cherished belief, or cherished possessions. As discussed recently in my blog, loss leads to grief, and grief can sometimes feel discordant with gratitude.
That’s not to say we can’t feel grateful during the grieving process. But especially in the early stages, it’s not the main emotion. Rather, gratitude flits in and out of sorrow, brief but sharply bright, like a hopeful melody shining through a funeral dirge.
The second doesn’t relate to recent experiences, but long-held beliefs about who we are and how we see the world.
To put it in psychological terms, optimists tend not to need lessons in gratitude, since they are already grateful their cups are at least half full.
The rest of us pessimists don’t give thanks for what fills the cup; we moan over the emptiness.
Or as one anonymous writer put it:
Does Gratitude Make a Difference?
In a word, yes.
Researchers have been studying gratitude for decades now. I just read a two-part study on it this week.
In the first part, the researchers studied individuals with “trait” gratitude – in other words, gratitude was a deeply ingrained part of their personality and worldview.
They found that trait gratitude predicted the presence of other positive attributes, like an ingrained sense of hope and happiness. The kicker was that gratitude outshone every other personality trait studied in leading to happiness and hope.
This is great news for the optimists out there. But what about us pessimists? Can we learn to be more grateful and so become happier and more hope-filled?
This was what the researchers studied in the second part of their experiment. The study participants were instructed to write about a past hope that had been fulfilled and for which they were grateful. Compared to controls who didn’t do this, those in the “grateful remembering” condition felt happier and felt more hopeful about the future.
The intentional practice of gratitude has been found to improve relationship quality and satisfaction, sleep, pain symptoms, fatigue, inflammation, and depressive feelings.
It also relieves the pain in painful memories, making them less intrusive in our present lives.
Thanks to brain imaging studies, we now know that grateful brains are wired differently than ungrateful brains. And it’s this different wiring that seems to mediate a greater sense of life satisfaction.
In honor of Thanksgiving this week, I wanted to set myself a goal of giving more thanks by introducing more intentional gratitude in my life.
So, I thought, “Hmm, how many things am I thankful for? Maybe twenty to fifty? Okay, I’ll make a list of the top ten.”
But then another voice in my head (I’m not the only one to have more than one, right?) scoffed and said, “Anyone can come up with ten things they’re thankful for. C’mon, you can do better than that.”
So then I thought, “Okay. Let’s make it a hundred.”
The other voice said, “A hundred isn’t bad. But how about a real challenge? How about trying to come up with a thousand things you’re thankful for?”
It was my turn to scoff. “A thousand?!! Listen, you crazy little voice in my head, I have a life. I have Thanksgiving dinner to cook. I don’t have time to think of a thousand reasons to be thankful.”
I thought that would shut it up for good. But then it said: “And just how many ungrateful thoughts do you think you’ve had so far this year, this month, or even this week? How much time do you spend dwelling on what gets your goat, instead of what floats your boat?”
I knew the voice was right. I am by nature a pessimist, not an optimist. So, I decided that I probably should try to even the scales a bit.
I started writing.
A Thousand Reasons to Be Thankful
Full disclosure: I’m not done with my list yet. At the time of this writing, I’m about halfway through.
But I thought maybe some of you would like to join me this week or month in this exercise.
Here’s my challenge: write out your list of one thousand reasons to be thankful.
This basically means anything that makes you happier, gives you a momentary thrill, or enriches your life.
They can be big or small; doesn’t matter.
Just in case that appeals to you (heck, maybe it even sounds fun), I’ll tell you how I did it and what I’ve learned so far.
At the outset, I wanted to break the challenge down into more manageable steps. I thought, “Well, a thousand is basically ten times ten times ten, right?”
Here was my basic plan:
Step #1: Think of ten main categories of things to be thankful for.
Step #2: Break each category into ten parts.
Step #3: For each part, find ten things to be thankful.
Disclosure #2: I didn’t get too caught up in the numbers. I found, as you probably will, that some categories grew beyond what I initially expected while others did not.
That’s totally fine.
The main goal is to get to a thousand…most likely more.
Because this is going to be way easier than you think.
Step #1: Think of ten broad categories to write about.
Here are some ideas, adapted from Glenn Schiraldi:
- Enjoyable life moments or activities;
- Accomplishments or successes (yours or others);
- Projects currently in progress;
- People you appreciate;
- Places you appreciate;
- Things you appreciate;
- Job (for you or loved ones);
- Health (for you or loved ones);
- Things you’ve learned;
- Things you’ve overcome.
Step #2: Break each category down into parts.
For example, here are different types of enjoyable moments or activities. You can choose one, a few, or all of these to write about:
- Art exhibits;
- Quality time with loved ones (parties, holidays, vacations);
- Vacations or trips;
- Delectable meals;
- Stimulating conversations;
- Time in nature.
Here are some types of accomplishments or successes:
- School degrees;
- Music certificates;
- Medals and awards;
- Sport or academic letters or trophies;
- Memberships in professional organizations;
- Commendations from teachers or bosses;
- Moving to a new place;
- Landing a job;
- Getting a raise or promotion;
- Doing something you’ve always wanted to do (e.g. learning how to juggle or going scuba diving)
- Personal goals or hobbies like woodworking, writing, knitting, composing, etc
We can all think of ten people we appreciate, including:
- Aunts and Uncles;
Here are examples of places and/or things we appreciate:
- Parks and places in nature;
- Lakes and oceans;
- Sports arenas;
- Ski lodges;
- Art conservatories and symphony halls;
- Things that make life easier, like good roads, charitable programs, public utilities, running water, indoor toilets, etc.;
- Things that make life safer, like fair laws, fire departments, diligent police officers, hospitals and clinics, quality medical care, etc.)
You get the idea.
Now, for the final step:
Step #3: For each part, find ten things to be thankful.
Let’s say one of your main categories is enjoyable life moments. You are especially thankful for being able to spend quality time with loved ones. You’ve thought of ten of those times. Now, write down ten reasons why each of those times was meaningful to you.
There’s your first 100. Easy, right?
Let’s say another main category is people. You’ve thought of ten people you are grateful for. Now, think of ten reasons why you appreciate each of those ten people.
There’s your second 100.
Another main category is things you’ve learned. You’ve thought of ten meaningful life experiences that taught you something important. Now, think of ten reasons why you benefited from each.
There’s your third 100.
Now, simply repeat until you reach 1000.
Five Lessons on Gratitude
Lesson #1: Gratitude Comes in All Sizes.
When I first thought of writing down one thousand reasons to be thankful, I thought I’d have to find 1000 dazzlers, 1000 firework shows that profoundly changed my life.
And truth be told, I did find some of those.
For example, one part of my list was about my husband, Oleg.
Once I started writing, I easily found 100 things to be grateful for and how our marriage and family has transformed and enriched my life.
I admire many things about my husband.
Some of his strengths are firework quality, so dazzling and rare are they among humankind.
But in my list of 100, there were also many small things – his goofy jokes, his small courtesies, the multitude of tasks he carries out to make our home safe and comfortable.
Gratitude is both stretchable and compressible.
It describes our profound joy and pleasure in life’s firework moments, but also describes the more numerous, minor sparks in between.
What I discovered in writing my list is, no moment is too small for a glow of gratitude.
Lesson #2: Gratitude Transforms Negatives into Positives.
In going through past memories, I sometimes stumbled on one that brought not a spark of gratitude, but a sting of anger, embarrassment, or resentment.
I’m sure you can relate.
There are some people, places, or events, that we feel have not enriched our lives at all. Rather, they have taken something valuable away.
And while I will not deny the pain those experiences cause us, I will say that the pain often does something useful: it triggers growth of some sort.
As I thought over some difficult experiences of my life, I thought, “I wonder….can I find something to be grateful for about that experience?”
To my surprise, I always could.
There were no exceptions.
Difficult people taught me empathy and patience; difficult situations taught me fortitude.
Before I began my list, some memories were placed firmly in the “negative” column in my mind.
But afterward, I found that some of the most miserable memories had mysteriously found their way into the “positive” column.
To my surprise, I found I was truly grateful for them, if not for the whole, then for the part that taught me something.
There is something miraculous about gratitude that turns muddy sewer water into wine.
Lesson #3: Gratitude is a Choice
Psychology tells us that we are borne with “trait” optimism or pessimism that makes us view life with either a rose-colored or jaundiced eye.
But we also have some say in whether we keep these traits intact, or rebuild them into something more balanced and healthy.
The research studies I mentioned earlier also suggest that gratitude is a choice we make. When we choose gratitude, we reap a reward: greater happiness and hope for the future.
Lesson #4: Gratitude Creates More Gratitude
When I began my list of a thousand things to be thankful for, I thought I would struggle to come up with that many.
I was astonished to find the struggle was on the other side, trying to stem the great gush of gratitude I had unwittingly started.
Because this is the way it worked: each moment of gratitude splintered itself into ten more, in which I found myself thinking, “This helped me in this way at first, but later in this way, and even later in this way.” Or, “This person blessed me not only in this way, but also this and this and this.”
Even minor moments took on multiple facets of meaning, gratitude within gratitude, turning them into beautiful, complex gems.
Major moments became more dazzling. As I explored the depth and breadth of their impact on my life, they burst over me again and again, gratitude upon gratitude, like a Fourth of July fireworks display.
Lesson #5: Gratitude is a Gift
‘For all thy blessings, known and unknown remembered and forgotten, we give thee thanks,’ runs an old prayer, and it is for the all but unknown ones and the more than half-forgotten ones that we do well to look back over the journeys of our lives because it is their presence that makes the life of each of us a sacred journey.”Frederick Buechner
The ability to feel grateful is itself a gift to be grateful for. If we doubt this, we need only think about what life would be like without it, or how we would feel if no one showed us any gratitude, to correct our thinking.
This gift can also be shared with others. We can both give and receive gratitude, multiplying its positive benefits on physical and mental health.
If I were called upon to state in a few words the essence of everything I was trying to say…it would be something like this: Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.”Frederick Buechner
 Witvliet, C. V., Richie, F. J., Root Luna, L. M., & Van Tongeren, D. R. (2019). Gratitude predicts hope and happiness: A two-study assessment of traits and states. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 14(3), 271-282.
 Emmons, R. A., & McCullough, M. E. (Eds.). (2004). The psychology of gratitude. Oxford University Press.
 Watkins, P. C., Cruz, L., Holben, H., & Kolts, R. L. (2008). Taking care of business? Grateful processing of unpleasant memories. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 3(2), 87-99.
 Kong, F., Zhao, J., You, X., & Xiang, Y. (2019). Gratitude and the brain: Trait gratitude mediates the association between structural variations in the medial prefrontal cortex and life satisfaction. Emotion (Washington, DC).
 Schiraldi, G. (2017). The Resilience Workbook. New Harbinger Publications, Inc. p.102.
Dr. Pamela Coburn-Litvak has published research articles on exercise and stress in Neuroscience and Neurobiology of Learning and Behavior. After receiving a Ph.D. in Neurobiology and Behavior from the State University of New York at Stony Brook, she served as both Assistant Professor of Physiology & Pharmacology and Special Assistant to the Vice President for Research Affairs at Loma Linda University in Loma Linda, California. She then joined the Biology department at Andrews University and developed courses in human physiology as well as the neurobiology of mental illness. She also founded Rock @ Science LLC, a company that specializes in health and science education and web development. She co-developed the brain and body physiology segment of the Stress: Beyond Coping seminar with its creator, Dr. William “Skip” MacCarty, DMin.
Dr. Coburn-Litvak currently lives in California with her husband. Their two daughters are mostly grown and attending school elsewhere.
When she’s not studying or teaching about stress, she enjoys stress-relieving activities like puttering around the garden, taking nature walks with her family, knitting, cooking, and reading.