We are celebrating Thanksgiving this week and there is an abundance of emails and social media posts about gratitude and the social and emotional benefits of a gratitude practice. As I considered what I could possibly contribute for this month's newsletter I started to get curious about why gratitude is beneficial and found an interesting paper by the Greater Good Science Center about the science of gratitude. What is gratitude? Is it a virtue, a value, an attitude, an emotion, a trait or a coping response? It turns out it is all of these things. Not that any one of these classifications is any better than another, but understanding what it means to you could be helpful because it is possible that how you personally relate to gratitude may impact your health and well-being. Cicero has been quoted as saying gratitude is the greatest virtue, and the Oxford English Dictionary defines virtue as "behavior showing high moral standards". Culture and religion are big influencers of those standards. This is why my mother was always nagging me to write thank you notes as a kid, to help me set my moral compass. Gratitude as a virtue doesn't resonate with me. It seems to imply that being a grateful person makes you superior to those that aren't, and that comparison is not productive. Am I morally superior to my children because I wrote thank you notes and they didn't (because I didn't make them)? Or is my mother is morally superior to me because she raised me to a higher standard (probably)? Thanks Mom, I love you! Does any of that get to the heart of why gratitude is beneficial? Certainly expressing thanks for something that is given to you fosters connection between the giver and the receiver, and close relationships are part of a happy life. When we receive something that really touches us most of us can't help but express gratitude. Writing thank you notes is not a chore when its heartfelt. What we are grateful for and why is intricately tied to our own circumstances and experiences. That is why I relate to gratitude as an emotion. The American Psychological Association defines an emotion as "a complex reaction pattern, involving experiential, behavioral and physiological elements". Practicing gratitude is practicing being emotional. It is finding that spot in our hearts that is softer and more open and sharing it with the giver. The giver does not need to be a person to create this emotion, it can be nature or a higher power. Those of us in Sedona know that our hearts can open when we see the beauty of the landscape or the starry night sky, and gratitude for that experience is just as real. The "physiological elements" of emotion like tears of joy are likely where the health and well-being benefits come in. Being emotional though... that is not easy for me. I was not raised in an environment where expressing emotion was encouraged so this takes practice. Being grateful I can do, but if I am grateful and not emotional than am I truly experiencing gratitude? I can authentically give a hug, a verbal thank you and write a note, but if I don't open my heart to let that emotion come through fully I think I might be missing something. It is guarded gratitude. I remember giving my dad a pack of golf balls with my college's logo on them when I graduated and a card to thank him for paying for my education. I probably spent under $20 to thank him for the thousands of dollars he contributed for me. I remember he was speechless and I swear I saw a tear in his eye. That is the kind of loving gratitude that is worth being vulnerable. I will never forget that moment with my typically unemotional father. It is letting that "complex reaction pattern" just come out without the filter of composure. So, this Thanksgiving week I hope you all get to experience being emotional and raw with your gratitude, your heart deserves it.
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