Willie Nelson once said, "When I started counting my blessings, my whole life turned around."
I write a Thanksgiving column every year. I always look forward to it. Gratitude is my most welcomed emotion and Thanksgiving my favorite holiday. (Note my Inc. Magazine column from last year titled "Thanksgiving and the Power of Gratitude in Business.") Yet this year I am having a hard time with it. Why is that?
Well, circumstantially I've had some personal disappointments with relationship, parenthood, and money. Business is unsettled. And I have a cold. But none of these things are the problem. The problem is more general and troubling. There seems to be an ambient miasma, a thick soup of sadness in the air.
Joseph Epstein, in an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal last Friday (11/18/16), calls this feeling a societal tristesse brought on by a dispiriting and malodorous presidential election campaign. (Tristesse is a French word that means sadness.) Epstein calls our tristesse a "spiritual fatigue" which we just have to let run its course.
But business and life keep on rolling along like Ol' Man River, never waiting to give us even a brief moment for respite or mindfulness.
There is a wonderful concept in historical Jewish thinking called tikkun olam which means "repair of the world." I feel I could use a little tikkun olam on my inner self these days.
It is easy to fall into an addiction distraction around dramatic public events like the recent election. These events are mesmerizing and entertaining. The excitement is compelling. But, like any addiction, such distraction can damage what is essential, grounding, and true--in our businesses and in ourselves--leaving us empty and uncentered.
But here is Thanksgiving, our national tonic of generosity and gratitude. By now it has been proven many times over that the act of expressing gratitude lifts people's sense of well-being. It flat out decreases pain and depression and boosts happiness. Gratitude reduces our stress-producing cortisol level. The evidence is overwhelming. Expressed gratitude is ultimately a selfish gift to ourselves, even more than to other people. And Thanksgiving comes just in time to help allay my own culturally induced sadness this year.
Arthur C. Brooks, President of the American Enterprise Institute, wrote an insightful article last year in The New York Times titled "Choose to be Grateful. It Will Make You Happier." He suggests that acting gratefully, regardless of your feelings, is efficacious for both your interior state, as well as your external interactions. He notes a famous 1993 experiment "where researchers asked subjects to smile forcibly for 20 seconds while tensing facial muscles, notably the muscles around the eyes called the orbiculares occuli (which create 'crow's feet.) They found that this action stimulated brain activity associated with positive emotions."
Brooks goes on to report, "According to research published in the journal Cerebral Cortex, gratitude stimulates the hypothalamus (a key part of the brain that regulates stress) and the ventral segmental area (part of our 'reward circuitry' that produces the sensation of pleasure)."
Brooks also shares an illustrative episode from his personal life which occurred in response to one of his recent books. Brooks recounts:
"One afternoon I received an unsolicited email. 'Dear Professor Brooks,' it began, 'You are a fraud.' That seemed pretty unpromising, but I read on anyway. My correspondent made, in brutal detail, a case against every chapter of my book. As I made my way through the long email, however, my dominant thought wasn't resentment. It was, 'He read my book!' And so I wrote him back--rebutting a few of his points, but mostly just expressing gratitude for his time and attention. I felt good writing it, and his near immediate response came with a warm and friendly tone."
I find very few moments when an attitude of gratitude is not richly rewarded. And we all have a ton of things to be grateful for. For me gratitude is truly a killer app for entrepreneurial felicity and personal happiness.
Cicero famously put it this way: "Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others." Thank you, Cicero.