In “Big Yellow Taxi,” the singer/songwriter’s jaunty 1970 tune about loss – of trees, of healthy food, of a love interest – she repeats and repeats, “Don’t it always seem to go / That you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.”
Mitchell is challenging us to not take things for granted. There is a wildly simple way to do that. It’s called expressing gratitude.
Joni Mitchell has written a lot of great lyrics, but one line seems especially apt this Thanksgiving.
Sure, that may sound eye-rollingly New Agey. But in truth, there has never been a better time to be genuinely thankful than this holiday season, one that arrives in the throes of a wrenching two-year global pandemic. In fact, we as a society are uniquely poised to feel profound gratitude because of our tough times.
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Thanksgiving 2021 arrives amid an era of unprecedented hardship. Let’s not blow this chance to make gratitude a permanent part of our psyche.
If any parallel is apt, it is to those who grappled with the Great Depression. That generation faced a decadelong hardship so profound that it forged a lasting appreciation for the value of hard work and simple pleasures, both enshrined by the mythic paintings of Norman Rockwell.
“COVID-19 was all about death,” says Rice University historian Douglas Brinkley. “This recovery is about a renewed feeling of survival, a gratefulness for backyard barbecues, religious services, or listening to live music. It’s a time of gratitude.”
Consider this our Depression-lite Generation’s chance for an attitude makeover. Perhaps on Turkey Day, ditch those superficial appreciations (“I’m happy my football team won”) in favor of more profound celebrations (“I’m glad Grandpa Joe is here with us”). It’s simple enough, though it does take commitment.
The good news, those who study and lecture on gratitude tell USA TODAY, is that guides abound, from books to podcasts, on how to make time for gratitude. The practice not only makes you feel good but can even train the brain to keep that high alive, they say.
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The cautionary word, however, is that humans are prone to what’s called hedonic adaptation, which basically translates to a tendency to revert back to our old – and in this case, unappreciative – ways.
“We are very good at getting used to changes, good and bad, which is what adaptation is, so in that sense, gratitude is the antidote to adaptation,” says Sonja Lyubomirsky, psychology professor at the University of California, Riverside, and author of “The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want.”
In order to keep adaptation from erasing your sense of gratitude, “you need to commit to practicing it, consciously thinking or talking about what you appreciate about your life,” she says. “It’s work.”
But precisely because we have been toiling through a time of unprecedented hardship, experts urge us not to blow this chance to make gratitude a permanent part of our psyche.
“This pandemic is a huge opportunity for us as a society to reset because if you missed the memo, it’s still out there,” says Nancy Davis Kho, author of “The Thank-You Project,” a 2019 book in which she wrote 50 letters of gratitude to friends and family.
Through that yearlong process, Kho’s letters fortified her positive recall bias, which is “a tendency to notice good things around us, whether a good book or dinner or friend, and that rewires your brain so that it’s easier and easier to see those things in your life.”