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old post: On Thanksgiving

from 2012

Other than great food, football, and family, what gives with this "thanksgiving" thing?
It's helpful to think of emotions in general, and gratitude in  particular, as having three different parts. We judge, or "appraise,"  our worlds (perhaps so naturally that we don't even notice). These  appraisals give rise to both a subjective experience ("I feel happy", or  "I feel afraid") and an action tendency, that is something we are  inclined to do. For instance, if I'm being chased by a killer rabbit, I  might appraise this as a bad thing I want to avoid, feel afraid, and  want to run away. (Video example can be found from Monty Python's Killer Rabbit skit.)
So, when we feel grateful, we are judging our world in a particular way, and we want to do something in particular.
How are we judging the world? Most gratitude scholars say it's  something like that we judge that we have received an undeserved good  from someone. So, for instance, I'm grateful today to the good folks  who invented the pre-made roll out pie crust. But maybe there's another  sort of judgment that is just a bit different, but which we call  "gratitude." I think that sometimes we're just focused on the "I don't  deserve this good thing" part without being focused on the "who gave it  to me" part. So, for example...it's a gorgeous sunny day here in DC  today, and I'm grateful for this day, without really thinking beyond  that to the day's origins.
What do we want to do in response to these appraisals? When we're  grateful to, we want to give back to the person who gave to us. (So  maybe I should send a card to the roll out pie crust people!) When we  are grateful for, it's less clear what we want to do, though I think we  want to celebrate. Perhaps we want to give more indiscriminately. (I  actually have data on this question I need to analyze...)
Evidence is growing that practicing gratitude has some benefits. I'm  not yet entirely convinced by the data. It's just in the last decade  that research on gratitude has grown and it takes a long while to really  know such things empirically. But the data are pretty encouraging. If  we buy that it is good to practice gratitude, why would gratitude  help? There are a lot of ideas about this, but I'll focus on two.
One comes from a variety of scholars, and is maybe best described by  Sara Algoe, She thinks that the experience of gratitude helps us find  the folks we can rely on and bind ourselves to them. We realize these  people have done things for us, we give back to them, and pretty soon we  have an awfully good bond. I think that might be a lot of what's going  on with the "grateful to" version of gratitude.
But I think there's more, and it tracks back to the appraisal part of  being "grateful for." If we cultivate gratitude, are we spending more  time looking for those things we have, instead of that which we lack?  Does that give us a sense that we have a life that is full, rather than  empty? Now, surely we both have and have not (which, btw, is part of  the title of a great Bogart-Bacall movie, the one in which the two met,  based on a Hemingway novel, and featuring the line "was you ever bit by a  dead bee?" But I digress...), but I suspect that particularly in our  consumerist United States culture, we are trained mostly to the "have  not" appraisal, maybe so much that we don't even notice when we make  it. We live in a culture so wealthy it creates the illusion that we can  fill  up. (So hard for the rich people to enter heaven and all that.)  So we try. Then we live lives of dissatisfaction, chasing things to fill  up our lack, feeling brief satisfaction when we have acquired, but then  quickly noticing that we still lack something else, with that judgment  of "have not" taking us right back to dissatisfaction. Does the  practice of gratitude lead us more often to the judgment that "I have!"  and thence the desire to celebrate, to give?
Thus does practicing gratitude (not in a sullen "Thanks Granny for  those socks I will never wear!" sort of way, but genuinely noticing the  undeserved goods in our lives, keeping an eye out for the many "I didn't  build this!" moments) shift how we routinely think of our worlds?  Dunno, but I suspect so. We shape what we notice in our worlds. For  instance, I am hyper-attuned to anything having to do with the St. Louis  baseball Cardinals, in a way that most of you poor benighted people are  not. This isn't genetic. It's practice. I notice Cardinals things  you likely do not because I've spent decades looking for them. Why  can't we also grow in attunement to that which we have, the same way I  have become attuned to the Cardinals? Why can't we grow into gratitude  fans, just as fans of our favorite teams, by practice?
This gives rise to a host of other questions. For instance, what  would an economy, a country, a world look like if it were based much  more prominently on giving, in response to experienced gratitude, rather  than getting, in response to perceived need?
Regardless of the answer to that, I wish you a day of gratitude, of  noticing the undeserved goodness in your life, even if that goodness is  sometimes difficult to see through so many of the unhappy things that  are also in our lives. And then thanksgiving.

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