The days are getting shorter, the air is getting cooler and the decorations are coming out.
It can only mean we have entered the Thanksgiving season, a time of year that now focuses on football and shopping. We are bombarded with ads as retail stores and small businesses hope to use the holiday season to become profitable for the year.
But lost in the shuffle is the Thanks that goes into Thanksgiving.
Psychologically, expressing gratitude is good for your health. When you recognize the role that other people have played in your life, it makes you feel more connected to others and less lonely. It increases your willingness to help other people.
It also helps eliminate stress.
The holidays are a time in which many people end up feeling a lot of stress. Some of it comes from having to juggle a variety of family situations. We don’t get to choose our family, and so you can end up sitting next to an uncle or cousin whom you would rather not have to be near.
The holidays also create stress around money and presents. We are expected to give gifts to friends and family members. Even though we are told that it is the thought that counts, it is hard not to worry about whether you are finding the right gifts for people and keeping the gift giving within your budget.
Stress is the feeling you have when you are focused mostly on what could go wrong in your world. Your motivational system engages a goal to avoid a problem, and it alerts the rest of your brain that it is in avoidance mode by producing feelings of anxiety and fear that reflect your concern when bad things might happen. On those days when you do avoid calamity, you experience calm, but not joy or satisfaction.
That’s why it is so important to focus on gratitude during this time of year. When you focus on your connection to others, you are able to pay attention to desirable aspects of the world. Your motivational system engages a goal to bring about positive outcomes, and as a result you experience the anticipation of good things, and when those good things happen, you feel happiness, joy and fulfillment.
These two aspects of motivation — approach and avoidance — compete with each other, so when you pay attention to the desirable aspects of your world, that crowds out the focus on potential problems. As a result, you shift from feeling stress to feeling anticipation, joy and satisfaction.
Of course, at this time of year, we are also celebrating the people who helped to found the United States. The Pilgrims fled religious persecution in England and settled in the New World in order to have more freedom.
It turns out that freedom also influences your sense of gratitude. Gratitude is the recognition that someone, or a group, has done things for you that have made your life better. You are thankful for that support. But, if someone were forced to do something nice, it is harder to be grateful to that person because you don’t feel that he or she had any choice in the matter.
Research has found that the more people believe in free will, the more gratitude they experience in their lives. That is, when people believe that others are free to choose their actions, then they recognize when people have chosen to be helpful to them.
So, Thanksgiving creates a perfect recipe for feeling the benefits of gratitude.
This season should remind us all to recognize others for what they have done for us. And the added American focus on freedom gives us the perfect springboard to appreciate the actions that others have taken on our behalf. In the end, this gives each of us a chance to connect with our family and our community and to help us experience joy in the holiday season.
Gratitude and freedom are a great combination to feel thankful this Thanksgiving.
Art Markman is a cognitive psychologist and director of the Human Dimensions of Organization program at The University of Texas at Austin.
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— Texas Perspectives (@TexPerspectives) November 25, 2015