What’s your favourite holiday?
If you ask kids this month, they are likely to answer “Hallowe’en!”
Mine is Thanksgiving.
Like Christmas, it’s a time we can gather with our loved ones and express appreciation for one another, but unless you’re American – or a Canadian who celebrates Black Friday, Thanksgiving does not require a frenzy of shopping.
And if you’re lucky enough to celebrate with a big family feast, you’re not likely to gain as much weight or drink too much as with the traditions of Christmas.
Thanksgiving prompts us to collectively reflect on the good in our lives – the many important people and things we take for granted. We don’t do this often enough.
The human brain has a natural negativity bias.
We notice more what is wrong than what is good.
We are attuned to pick up on things that are out of place or we just don’t like – in our environment, in others and in our selves. Noticing potential dangers or longing for things we lack had great survival value for our species but can make us overly anxious when our lives are generally safe – and unsatisfied when we really have enough.
Our negativity bias is great for business. What we have seems not enough, we crave for the new iPhone, new clothes and expensive rides. Consumerism capitalizes on our dissatisfaction with what we have and the commercial world convinces us that happiness is to be found in looking better and having more.
We can only be happy when we appreciate what we have today.
Our negativity bias, when it highlights danger and challenge and ignores our personal resources, can make us anxious. When it highlights what is wrong in our lives and ignores what is right, it can make us depressed.
That negativity bias is bad for relationships. Because children hear more criticism than complements, it erodes self-esteem and how they feel about their parents. When couples hear more words of complaint than affection, aversion overpowers attraction.
As a rule of thumb, the human brain must perceive five positives just to balance with one negative. I’ve asked couples and parents to come up with five positive comments for every criticism they express at home. They at first realize that it becomes such an effort to come up with so many positive comments that they hold their tongues with the negatives.
But in modern neuroscience, we know that we can change the way we think. As Canadian neuropsychologist, Donald Hebb said, “Neurons that fire together wire together.” Once we start looking for more positives in others, the more we will see.
And when everyone in the family starts hearing more complements than criticisms, their relationships will improve and the home can become a haven of positive affection.
The gift of Thanksgiving is the power of appreciation. It’s an attitude and a perspective that can foster personal happiness and improve our relationships.
Appreciation – like love and forgiveness – is a twice-blessed gift. Expressing our appreciation for others makes us feel happier; feeling appreciated makes others happier.
This year, I’m starting a new Thanksgiving tradition by sending a note to the people in my life whom I most appreciate: those who make a positive difference to me and others.
I invite you to embrace the healing attitude of gratitude and start your own tradition. The best place to start is at home, in your neighbourhood, at school and at work.
Dr. Davidicus Wong is a family physician. His Healthwise Column appears regularly in the Vancouver Courier.