This Hanukkah, let’s take a lesson from Thanksgiving

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Susan Kemppainen, Special to the Jewish Light

Thanksgiving and Hanukkah both arrive around the same time this year, and it has made me consider the difference between being grateful for what we have versus craving the things we want. After all, Thanksgiving is a holiday devoted to the concept of gratitude, and even though Hanukkah is technically about rededication, who in our consumer-driven world doesn’t focus at least a little on Hanukkah presents?

Realistically, we can all benefit from cultivating a little more gratitude and a little less longing for things just out of our reach. Our brains have a natural tendency to focus on and remember negative experiences over positive ones. Recalling and avoiding unpleasant events is a pretty effective survival technique from an evolutionary standpoint, so it can be easy to believe that things are going much worse for us than they really are.

The irony is that our negative perceptions of events are frequently based on faulty assumptions, interpretations and one-sided viewpoints that hinder accurate reflection on our lives.

Susan Kemppainen

Research has shown that people with a more grateful outlook on life have lower self-reported levels of depression and anxiety, and improved social relationships, empathy, sleep, energy, health and overall life satisfaction.

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Being a ‘Pollyanna’ 

In our society, calling a person a “Pollyanna” has the negative connotation of being a blindly optimistic do-gooder. However, the original 1913 version of the character does not portray Pollyanna as unrealistic or overly optimistic.

In fact, Pollyanna was an orphan whose father taught her to play a gratitude game before his death, as a way to seek something to be glad about in every situation. The more challenging it was to find something to be grateful for, the more fun the game was too. Eventually, Pollyanna learned to be thankful automatically, and so did those fortunate enough to meet her and learn her game. Maybe, instead of using her name in a derogatory fashion, we should embrace the lessons that Pollyanna can offer.

Breaking free of a negative mindset can be a difficult challenge. So, how do we open our eyes to all the positive things that already exist in our lives?

I’ve found that the quickest way to jump on the bandwagon was to begin daily gratitude writing. Each day, just write down a few things that made you happy. Did you love that warm cup of coffee you had in the morning? Was the after-dinner dog snuggling a highlight of your day?

Gratitude and mindfulness

Your moments of gratitude do not have to be same-day or even same-year specific. Were you grateful that first time you held your grandchild or the day you married your best friend? Even if you are not feeling particularly thankful, act as if you are and find something you are grateful for, and the feeling will follow. Mindfulness, with a good dose of gratitude, will change how you evaluate your life and bring so many benefits.

Now that you know the key to happiness, do not miss the opportunity this Thanksgiving and Hanukkah to channel your inner Pollyanna and take note of your moments of gratitude. A little thankfulness therapy goes a long way, and I guarantee it costs less than eight nights’ worth of Hanukkah presents.

Susan Kemppainen earned a bachelor’s in psychology from Tulane University and a MSW from Washington University. Kemppainen currently works at the Mirowitz Center at Covenant Place as the Volunteer/Activity Program Coordinator. Before joining the Mirowitz Center, she was a crisis hotline counselor for Life Crisis Services for 15 years, earning certifications in crisis counseling and compulsive gambling treatment.

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