Aren Cohen, MBA, MAPP '07 is a learning specialist working with academically, motivationally and emotionally challenged students in the leading private schools in New York City. As shown in her website and blog, Strengths for Students, Aren uses the tenets of positive psychology to teach her students to use their strengths of character to change educational challenges into educational triumphs. Full bio. Aren's articles are here.
For the past few years, in my job as a learning specialist, I have helped students write papers answering the question: “Should Columbus Day be celebrated as a holiday?” Almost uniformly, they agree that Columbus Day should not be a holiday because of the effects Columbus and other conquistadors had on populations already living here. In truth, while the paper teaches the students to think critically and to question what is moral behavior, it is not a positive psychology paper. Being reminded that Americans live on land stolen from a peaceful people who were practically decimated is kind of a killjoy. Nonetheless, the students are happy when they turn in the paper and have Monday off from school.
Thanksgiving as a Positive-Psychology HolidayCompared to Columbus Day, Thanksgiving is a great positive psychology holiday. In fact, thanksgiving, not as a holiday but as a phenomenon, is part of positive psychology lingo, appearing in Fred Bryant and Joseph Veroff’s model of savoring.
Bryant and Veroff describe two kinds of savoring, self-focused savoring and world-focused savoring. Each of these categories can be broken down further. Self-focused savoring includes basking and luxuriating, while world-focused savoring includes marveling and thanksgiving. Both marveling and luxuriating require a person to become absorbed in his or her own experience but basking and thanksgiving ask for a kind of cognitive reflection. And while basking necessitates self-examination and celebrating one’s own pride, thanksgiving involves reflection on what the world has to offer us and why we should celebrate it.
Thanksgiving, the holiday, is a modern day harvest festival. We celebrate an event when the pilgrims and the Native Americans sat down together and enjoyed the fruits of the earth. It is so much more pleasant to reflect on that image of history than Columbus in 1492 with the Arawak Indians. Not only is it peaceful and harmonious, but also it bespeaks a respect and gratitude for one another and for the abundance that this land could provide them.Harvest Festivals: Celebrating Earth’s Bounties
Harvest festivals have a long history, as Angus Skinner pointed out in an earlier article on PositivePsychologyNews.com. The Greeks and the Romans worshiped the goddesses Demeter and Ceres respectively and held celebrations in their honor when the harvest came in. In Jewish tradition, there is the holiday of Sukkot, where an outdoor hut is built and often covered in fruit while people celebrate the harvest and eat under this canopy for seven days. China has a harvest festival called Zhong Qui, and in India they celebrate Pongal and Lohri. In modern day Morocco, there are specific harvest festivals for cotton, clementines, cherries, apples and pears, and olives.
Although the specifics of traditions differ, it is clear that, as a species, we are programmed to reflect on the bountifulness of the earth. Because it brings us not only sustenance but also positive emotion, we celebrate thanksgiving to, quite literally, give thanks to the world’s resources.What I like specifically about Bryant and Veroff’s savoring model is that it does invoke a world-focus. There are many thing we are grateful for daily, and many of them will be at our Thanksgiving dinners. But in our modern world, while we may stop to marvel at a beautiful sunset or be grateful for the food on the table, how often do we stop to give thanks to Mother Nature for all that she provides for us? Many of us have become more and more incommunicado with nature— one thinks of the story of the little inner city girl. When asked, “Where does milk come from?” she answered, “From a carton.” We cannot continue to live this way, and Thanksgiving is our best opportunity to start savoring the many, many gifts the earth gives us.
Thanksgiving Address from the Iroquois
When I was a MAPP student a classmate, Iris Marie Bloom, gave us a wonderful gift that I have saved because it touched me so deeply. It is called Thanksgiving Address: Greetings to the Natural World. The Iroquois, a tribe of Native Americans in New York and Canada, originally gave this as an invocation.At my Thanksgiving, sitting in the heart of New York City, we will read this and reconnect with the earth, even if it means just a walk in Central Park or along the Hudson River. Perhaps you too, will choose to include these words in your Thanksgiving, celebrating and savoring, taking a moment to recognize and praise Mother Nature.
As we sit around the table this year, there are many reasons to feel positive emotions. But while you are celebrating the joys of social connection and the deliciousness of your meal, don’t forget to take time to experience the very specific kind of savoring this day was named for. This Thanksgiving, give thanks for all that the earth does to support and maintain us.
Bryant, F. & Veroff, J. (2007) Savoring: A new model of positive experience.. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.