Thanksgiving is next week, officially marking the start of the holiday season.
But everything is different this year. We’ll be smaller groups gathering, and along with the scent of crisp turkey slow cooking on the oven, is anxiety.
Those of us with school-age children or aging parents might feel particularly worried. How can we stop an unseeable force? Why are some people still not wearing masks? Where is the hand sanitizer?
How are we supposed to give thanks in the time of COVID? The tinge of sadness or depression can be overwhelming. The cure some researchers say, that can actually lift the spirits, is built right into the holiday — expressing gratitude.
My family has a tradition of going around the Thanksgiving table – normally upwards of 20 people – to say out loud what we are grateful for. Although some family members struggle with it, or pass completely, that gratitude seeps into all of us. Gratitude is good.
A wise, very successful woman once said, “Be thankful for what you have; you’ll end up having more. If you concentrate on what you don’t have, you will never, ever have enough.” Oprah Winfrey
Giving thanks can make you happier. Seriously happy and seriously happier. I’ll tell you how – and why it’s so important.
Let’s look at the word ‘gratitude’. It is derived from the Latin word gratia, which means grace, graciousness, or gratefulness (depending on the context). Gratitude is a thankful appreciation for what we receive, whether tangible or intangible. When we acknowledge gratitude, when we speak the words, we are acknowledging the goodness in our lives, helping us all connect to something larger than ourselves as individuals — whether to other people, nature, or a higher power.
In recent psychology research, gratitude is strongly and consistently associated with greater happiness. Gratitude helps people feel more positive emotions, relish good experiences, improve their health, deal with adversity, and build strong relationships.
We can feel and express gratitude in multiple ways. We can apply it to the past (retrieving positive memories and being thankful for elements of childhood or past blessings), the present (not taking good fortune for granted as it comes), and the future (maintaining a hopeful and optimistic attitude). Regardless of the inherent or current level of someone’s gratitude, it’s a quality that individuals can successfully cultivate further.
This is the premise of my one-minute meditation. Set your phone timer for 60 seconds. Close your eyes. Go back to a joyful memory and relive it over and over until the 60 seconds is up. Smile at the memories. Open your eyes. Don’t you feel nice?
It’s more important than ever to acknowledge gratitude. While it’s usually reserved for Thanksgiving, gratitude is something that we should be able to express on any occasion—no matter how big or small. Don’t limit these thoughts to one holiday.
Dr. Robert A. Emmons of the University of California, Davis, and Dr. Michael E. McCullough of the University of Miami, both psychologists, have done extensive research on gratitude. In one study, they asked all participants to write a few sentences each week, focusing on specific topics.
One group wrote about things they were grateful for that had occurred during the week. A second group wrote about daily irritations or things that had displeased them and the third wrote about events that had affected them (with no emphasis on them being positive or negative). After 10 weeks, those who wrote about gratitude were more optimistic and felt better about their lives. Surprisingly, they also exercised more and had fewer visits to physicians than those who focused on sources of aggravation.
Another leading researcher in this field, Dr. Martin E. P. Seligman, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, tested the impact of various positive psychology interventions on 411 people, each compared with a control assignment of writing about early memories. When their week’s assignment was to write and personally deliver a letter of gratitude to someone who had never been properly thanked for his or her kindness, participants immediately exhibited a huge increase in happiness scores. This impact was greater than that from any other intervention, with benefits lasting for a month.
While it is challenging to provide empirical proof, these studies support an association between gratitude and our well-being.
Other studies have shown how gratitude can improve relationships. For example, a study of couples found that individuals who took time to express gratitude for their partner not only felt more positive toward the other person but also felt more comfortable expressing concerns about their relationship.
Managers who remember to say “thank you” to people who work for them may find that those employees feel motivated to work harder.
Gratitude is a way for people to appreciate what they have instead of always reaching for something new in the hopes it will make them happier, or thinking they can’t feel satisfied until every physical and material need is met. Gratitude helps people refocus on what they have instead of what they lack. And, although it may feel contrived at first, this mental state grows stronger with use and practice.
Here are some ways to cultivate gratitude on a regular basis.
Write a thank-you note. You can make yourself happier and nurture your relationship with another person by writing a thank-you letter expressing your enjoyment and appreciation of that person’s impact on your life. When I was in college, my sorority did an exercise where everyone’s name was at the top of a blank sheet of paper. We were instructed to write down a positive thing about that person and pass it along until everyone has written one thing about each person in the room. There were 17 of us in that room. I still have that piece of paper, and every time I come across it, I am filled with warmth and positivity. I send out a silent prayer that my words had the same effect on them.
Thank someone mentally. No time to write? It may help just to think about someone who has done something nice for you, and mentally thank the individual.
Keep a gratitude journal. Make it a habit to write down or share with loved one thought about the gifts you’ve received each day. It’s a good practice at the end of the day, lying in bed, to tick off the things in that day for which you are grateful. Commit to 3 or 5 or ten things a day you can list.
Meditate. Mindfulness meditation involves focusing on the present moment without judgment. Although people often focus on a word or phrase, you can recite a prayer or simply focus on what you’re grateful for (the warmth of the sun, a pleasant sound, etc.).
“Acknowledging the good that you already have in your life is the foundation for all abundance.” Eckhart Tolle