As we enter the week of Thanksgiving, I want to pause on the notion of gratitude. We often are especially thankful this time of year. I admit, Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday! It is about food, family, and taking in and reflecting on all of the good stuff in life. As a family therapist in Washington DC and nearby Bethesda, I often help families work through difficult transitions and hard times. Thanksgiving Day feels like a pause in the midst of busy, sometimes challenging work.
As I prepared my family’s Thanksgiving Day menu, I found myself wondering: What are the ingredients within gratitude? What are the acts that allow us to feel and act thankful even in the midst of challenging times?
Recipe for Gratitude
1 Part Giving
1 Part Experiencing
1 Part Connecting
When working with families and teens, I often guide them to the work of the famous local psychologist, Stanley Greenspan, who wrote volumes on security, attachment and child development. In particular, he suggested that emotional security is comprised of 3 parts: Competence, Confidence, and Connection. Competence is when we know we are good at something. Confidence is when we feel good at something. And, Connection is when we feel close to others, ourselves or an experience.
I see parallels of these processes in my work with families when I help them transition from negative interactions into more positive, appreciative stances with each other. First, I must help them know that they have the skills to have better interactions together. Second, I must help them practice those skills together in my office so that they can feel more positive about their ability to connect and relate well with each other; they need practice to feel more confident in their skills and relationships. Third, I must help them expand their sense of connection with each other; they must begin to feel closer to themselves and others on a daily basis with each. I often get them to work on how they can expand their connections to other people, places and things. This process, I believe, directly relates to how we can instill a sense of gratitude and install a thankful attitude within ourselves and others.
First, we take stock of where we are, and we strive for fully experiencing our “places” in life. This experiencing occurs when we associate Thanksgiving with returning home from college in order to see our family and friends after being away. Second, we make an extra effort to be generous, and we amp up our acts of giving during this season. Giving “things” (i.e. food, clothing, donations, etc.) that others might need or want helps us appreciate what we already have, and what we have to contribute to others happiness or sense of well-being. Lastly, and most importantly, we focus on connecting with those whom we love. We make special dinners and create memories with our family and friends all with the aim of connecting with our very important people in life. We relish in their company, we put up with their idiosyncrasies, and we love them anyway. As humans, we are hardwired to love and connect. Thanksgiving is the holiday that reminds me most of that fact. Happy Thanksgiving to each of you and your families!