PSYCHVINE

Mashed potatoes—one of our favorite holiday foods.  Green bean casserole, yum.  Turkey, a must along with the required stuffing.  Cranberry sauce, naturally.  Piping hot rolls with loads of real butter, just the thought makes our mouths water.  Pies in abundance—pecan, apple, cherry, sweet potato (with marshmallows of course) and pumpkin with whipped cream.  It’s so easy to overindulge and costs can include discomfort, bloating, fatigue, and regret.  For most people, they consider it a one day binge and well worth the cost.

Thanksgiving is also a day to give thanks, to be grateful.  We’re grateful for our family, friends, life, food, our home, our dogs, freedom, clean air, drinkable water, and our mountains that we see every day.  We’re especially grateful this year that we can turn off politics and light a fire instead.  Time for a break.

Gratitude stands as one of the primary pillars of the positive psychology movement.  This movement uses psychological principles and ideas to enhance life satisfaction, well-being, and personal happiness.  The movement emerged as a reaction to psychology’s previous emphasis on pathology and negative emotional states such as depression and anxiety.  We’ve written in many of our books about the usefulness of gratitude journals and exercises that encourage people to focus on what’s good about their lives that they feel grateful for in order to lift moods.

But alas, like most everything else, it’s actually possible to go too far with gratitude.  It may surprise you that focusing excessively on feelings of gratitude can backfire.  For example, we plan to take our grandchildren on a couple of trips this summer.  The girls are going to Washington, D.C. and we’ll take the boys to Seattle, Washington.  In preparation, we bought books on manners for kids.  Suddenly, every moment of our time spent with the grand-kids is peppered with “thank you, Grandma; thank you, Papa, could you please pass the rolls?”  Sounds great on the surface.  But they started saying these things by rote, in obvious response to the promise of a trip in return for good manners.  The emotional meaning was lost on them.  In fact, the constant stream of “please and thank you” began to sound annoying.

Aside from the hopefully positive gratitude associated with good manners, excessive gratitude can lead to feelings of guilt.  While those of us privileged to have food and shelter can feel grateful, it’s easy to feel shame that these things are not universally available across the world.  Of course, feeling a little guilt is OK, if it leads to productive action.

Another downside of too much gratitude is that the practice eventually becomes boring, routine, and meaningless.  Daily gratitude journals, while temporarily uplifting, eventually morph into a burdensome task.  In fact, a study by a team of psychologists found that once a week gratitude journals increased sense of well-being, but study participants who journaled three times a week failed to experience a positive outcome from the exercise.  We can only assume that a gratitude journal of even greater frequency (daily, hourly?) would decrease people’s sense of well-being.

Finally, an emphasis on what you feel grateful for may keep you from striving for future goals and ambitions.  You may experience complacency.  So, the bottom line is—yes, be thankful.  But don’t pressure yourself to overdo gratitude or, for that matter, Thanksgiving turkey.

Photo Credit: Kristen Hudman

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