THE BLOG
11/23/2011 06:59 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2012

Gratitude Is Thanks on Steroids

"At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us."
-- Albert Schweitzer

Of course we're thankful for our turkeys and our mashed potatoes. We're thankful for our families and friends and homes and cars and kids and electricity and iPads and the mailman.

This is America, after all. Thanksgiving is when we stop our normal routines, indulge in all we've got and say "thanks" to the universe or God or each other. It's tradition.

But I got thinking about gratitude, past the mere words "Thank you." Way past. I went to the second definition of gratitude in the dictionary, the one that says, "... readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness."

Being grateful, feeling grateful and acting grateful are three different things.

Being grateful can just be an intellectual act. Like I'm grateful for whoever invented traffic lights that keep us safe. I am grateful, really, but quite frankly I don't have any feelings about that.

Many spiritualists and scientists say gratitude is an emotion. Feeling grateful humbles us and allows us to appreciate something or someone in our lives. For example, I feel grateful for the military that protect us. For sure. I have good, positive feelings about the men and women who wear uniforms on my behalf.

Gratitude may be an emotion, but I've always thought of it as an action. Acting grateful is taking the time to let someone know that they've made a difference in our lives. It's showing, through our actions, that we don't take special people and things for granted; it's the act of returning the kindnesses that have been given to us.

Gratitude is good for both parties in all kinds of relationships. I learned this when my mother was dying. As she lay in front of me, drifting in and out of consciousness, I wondered what I should say. What would I wish I'd said years later? "Thank you," I told her as I stroked her hair and cried onto her sheet. "I want to thank you for everything you've taught me including what you're teaching me now." She opened her eyes and picked up her head. "What?" she asked. "You've been way better to me than I ever was to you. I should be thanking you." Her gratitude has gone a long way in the years that have followed, and I would have never known it unless I'd offered it to her first.

Gratitude is especially beneficial in marriages. Researcher Dolores R. Leckey writes that, "Gratitude leads to many other 'virtues' like laughter and fun, compassion and mercy." Sarah Rose Cavanagh, Ph.D., professor of psychology in affective sciences, found a strong correlation between one's own felt and expressed gratitude and marriage satisfaction. She concludes that, "truly felt gratitude toward a partner may be portrayed in nonverbal cues and in reciprocal actions ... both of which could result in higher marriage satisfaction."

Researchers at U.C. Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center have found many links between gratitude and happiness. It seems that positive emotions about one thing simply make us feel better about everything. But in order to get the benefits, we have to actively practice generating those positive emotions.

One way to hang on to that feeling of gratitude is to act on it throughout the year. Whether by verbalizing it in thank you notes or journals, or letting the people who touch our lives know they've made a difference, practicing gratitude benefits everyone involved. Picture it as a circle of positive energy that goes around and around as long as it's passed along. I think it really works that way.

When I was in high school, we watched a movie in driver's ed class about courtesy on the road. If someone lets you merge in, they told us, let someone else merge in later. If you're nose-to-nose with another car and the other driver lets you have the parking space, do the same for someone else next time you're out. I still remember that movie and have come to think about it more as practicing gratitude than just showing common courtesy. The driver who gives away the parking spot is courteous. The one who returns the favor is grateful.

Gratitude puts things in perspective, and it's easy to lose perspective in our everyday lives. It's hard to appreciate the man who let you merge ahead of him in traffic if your kids are screaming in the backseat. It's hard to remember your son's sentiments in your birthday card when your plane is two hours late on the tarmac.

This holiday season give us all the opportunity to show our gratitude and not just think about it or feel it.

Just writing this article has given me some new ideas on how to show my gratitude. I'm going to send out my holiday greeting cards to our protectors in the military before the Holiday Mail for Heroes December 9 deadline, and I'm planning to be nice to other drivers at the mall on Black Friday. I'm going to let my husband know how much I appreciate the new cup holder in my car by making him his favorite meatloaf.

Sometimes the greatest gift you can give is expressing your gratitude for someone else. May your holidays be filled with many of those gifts, both given and received.

Janice M. Van Dyck is an award-winning author and freelance writer. Her most recent novel, "Finding Frances," is based on what she learned about life during her mother's passing.