By Dr. Julie Caplan
Gratitude. We hear this word often this time of year, and it can elicit mixed emotions. Some of us are ready and willing to shout from the rooftops about everything for which we are grateful. We are the people who cheerfully, and sometimes tearfully, express the multitudes of reasons we are grateful when sitting around the Thanksgiving table. Then there are those of us who celebrate more quietly, be it with smaller gatherings, journaling, introspection, or one-on-one conversation. Even more of us may choose to rebuff the concept altogether, particularly when faced with the never-ending societal pressure to be thankful no matter what.
Here we are, with Thanksgiving right around the corner. It can be hard to feel grateful when faced with personal struggles. I know we all have experienced some level of hardship since the COVID-19 pandemic began, and our lives have been filled with various amounts of loss, disappointment, and loneliness. As with anything however, we have more control over our thoughts and feelings than we might think. Taking control over our mindset is a powerful way to take back feelings of autonomy. But, how do we do this when we feel so blah all the time?
The Answer is Science, It’s Always Science
Research shows that living in gratitude can promote one’s emotional well-being, with a wealth of positive benefits, such as higher satisfaction with personal relationships, fewer symptoms of physical illness, and overall increased happiness. One study found that those who journaled about the things for which they were grateful showed a higher well-being than those who journaled about negative or neutral life events. As such, our thoughts and feelings really can be self-fulfilling prophecies. Luckily, we have significantly more control over them than we might initially believe. You may have heard the phrase “fake it ‘til you make it” before, and I have to say that there is some truth behind it. When we do something positive, regardless of how small it is or how intently we might disbelieve it, it lights a spark. When we continue the positive behavior, the spark becomes a flame, and then a fire. This is how we are able to reframe negativity in our lives. It can be as simple as putting up a post-it note on your bathroom mirror with a positive affirmation and reading it to yourself every morning. Eventually, your amazingly plastic brain will begin to believe it as truth.
Some other strategies that might help increase your ability to live in gratitude include:
- Slow down and savor the small things you see: how pretty the sunset looks or a beautiful flower growing in the garden by your office.
- Slow down and savor the small things you hear: your child’s giggles, the coffee maker signal, or your favorite song from high school coming on the radio.
- Slow down and savor the small things you feel: the sensation of getting into a freshly made bed, taking off your bra at the end of the day, or the blast of air conditioning when you come through your front door on a hot day.
- Slow down and savor the small things you smell: the first whiff of your morning coffee, the scent of your fancy bathroom soap, or towels fresh from the dryer.
- Slow down and savor the small things you taste: the first bite of a dessert or the tang of a perfect pickle.
- Make a gratitude list: write a list of things that make you happy. Nothing is too small or insignificant.
- Keep a gratitude journal: a journal that you reserve for jotting down three to five things you are grateful for each day.
- Spend time doing things you love with people you enjoy. Make connection a daily priority.
- Write a gratitude letter: write a letter (not an email, an actual letter) to someone that you are grateful to have in your life and tell them all the reasons why.
- Create a gratitude jar: each person in the family writes down one thing they are grateful for each day and puts it into a jar. Bonus points if you read them all weekly at a family dinner.
- Creating a gratitude tree, garland, or wreath: another visual reminder of all the things you are grateful for that is especially fun for families with young children. Each person writes what they are grateful for on a leaf/flower/etc. and posts on a “trunk” or other frame.
- Create a gratitude collage: find pictures of things you find inspiring or that you are grateful for and turn them into an artistic collage.
- Carry a gratitude object: designate an object or a piece of jewelry that is your “gratitude object” that you have with you or wear to remind you of all the things you are grateful for.
All of these activities can be done alone or with your kids, your family, your significant other, or your friends. Maybe start a group text and share one thing you are grateful for each day! By spending time actively participating in gratitude, you are setting yourself up for all sorts of positive benefits. I mentioned some above, but others include better sleep, increased empathy, higher self-esteem, reduced aggression, and more meaningful social connections. Further, practicing gratitude in the form of external behaviors, such as saying “Thank you” to someone for something they have done or said, may then produce future kind acts due to the positive reinforcement received. Finally, when you make living in gratitude a daily practice, it becomes automatic and you will reflexively respond to hardships by finding the silver lining. It will be effortless, like a magical shield that springs up to soften the blows that might otherwise knock you off balance.