Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade

Thanksgiving is my favorite American holiday, and from the time I was a little girl, the day started with big brass marching bands, acrobats, floats from the latest Broadway shows, and oversized balloons of Charlie Brown, Mickey Mouse, and other imaginary characters that marched through New York in the Macy’s Day Parade.  So you can only imagine how magical it was for me to make my debut last year as a balloon handler for the Pillsbury Doughboy and to join the “Funny Firefighter Brigade” in this year’s procession.

Uniquely dedicated to giving thanks, Thanksgiving is quintessentially about gratitude.  And I know that even with whatever aches and injuries I have endured and whatever heartbreak and wounds I continue to lick, I have a lot to be grateful for.

But I have to say, I am having a problem with what feels like a parade of gratitude platitudes – automated emails of gratitude from people and organizations I don’t know, Apps that have gratitude quotes for when I am feeling sad, and Black Friday advertisements that say that if I really love someone, I will buy them something to say thank you. I worry that real gratitude is being hijacked.

1. The gratitude of Thanksgiving has its roots in a long tradition. American Thanksgiving dates back to 1621 when 50 Pilgrims and 90 Native Americans held a feast to celebrate a successful growing season. It was a new world celebration that traces its origins to the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, which in turn traces its origins to ancient pagan harvest festivals. But half the Pilgrims had died in the preceding year, and the rest were malnourished, disease-afflicted and unsure if they would survive another year. And the Native Americans, who had lost many to small pox and foreign invasion had major problems of their own. It is the collective courage and determination of these Pilgrims and Native Americans to celebrate life in the face of loss and pain and adversity that is so compelling. And so with succeeding generations, this day of Thanksgiving became the quintessential symbol of gratitude – real gratitude.

2. The plenty of gratitude. True gratitude has many health benefits. It can lead to a profound experience of plenty so conscious and intentional efforts to cultivate gratitude makes sense. Gratitude is related to better physical and mental health and social relationships, and fosters better immune function, reduces stress, leads to better relationship quality. It also is associated with greater happiness. Developing gratitude positively increases certain brain activity, which can continue to improve with practice.

3. The platitude of gratitude. The scientifically demonstrated benefits of gratitude have inspired a pop psychology explosion of talk about gratitude in recent years.  We can turn to the internet and learn how to “Get grateful! 20 ways to teach your kids gratitude, from tots to teens” or, if we aren’t feeling so grateful, we can read “30 gratitude quotes that remind us to be more thankful.” Although it is a positive message, the pop psychology wholesale effort to sell gratitude comes with real risks. As describe by psychologist Ilyse Dobrow DiMarco, “The gratitude industrial complex” can put pressure on people to feel grateful in ways that have the unintended consequence of making people actually feel worse about themselves and their situations.

4. From platitude to plenty. The pop psychology gratitude campaign implies that if we cultivate gratitude as a way of life, it will take away our worries and injuries, and in today’s Facebook world, we will be happy all the time. But gratitude does not equal happiness, and gratitude will not make us happy all the time. The “Facebook effect” that only permits expression of positive emotions means that half the spectrum of emotional experience gets denied and goes underground. But true gratitude isn’t about denying negative feelings or difficulties in your life. True gratitude depends on embracing the pain and having the courage and conviction to find a way to plenty anyway.

5. Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade turned 90 this year. What makes it so compelling? One essential element must be that it is a fun-loving march of gratitude. It brings together thousands of volunteers from around the country – some who were widowed this year, some who are in between chemo treatments, some who have loved ones with mental health problems, some who lost jobs, some who struggle with alcoholism, some who have scars of abuse from long ago, some whose scars have yet to heal. But as we parade down Central Park West, cross Columbus Circle, and march towards Herald Square, we gratefully celebrate life knowing that having the courage to do so will ease what hurts when we take off our costumes and have to put one step in front of the other in everyday life.

So… in the spirit of true gratitude, I am grateful to friends and family who have walked by my side through the whole range of life experience and who have the courage to embrace all of it. You inspire me to cultivate my own experience of gratitude. And a special shout out of gratitude to my sister, Virginia, who has walked with me in real life and in both parades – this year as part of the Funny Firefighter Brigade!

Picture of Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD is Professor of Psychology and Director of the Global Mental Health WHO Collaborating Centre at Columbia University.

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