Giacomo Bono Ph.D.

Making Grateful Kids

Choose Gratitude Your Own Way for Good

Survive holiday stress and thrive for good by choosing gratitude your own way

Posted Nov 25, 2015

The holiday season can seem like both the best of times and the worst of times. Many people, especially those of us living in urban areas, may be vacillating between two thoughts: “here comes the joyous season of thanks and giving” and “here comes the stress of the holidays”. While most people look forward to the holidays as a time to share cheer with family and friends, admittedly, preparing for all this cheer takes time and money. Plus, other circumstances may add to the stress, like being cooped up with people you see just once a year and maybe don’t have a lot in common with and living under temporary arrangements in someone else’s home. While all this can add up and easily sap joy from us, the fact is that this holiday state of affairs—making the best of times, despite the stress of the times—presents us with optimal circumstances for learning the importance of choosing gratitude.

Dealing with Holiday Stress

First, let’s deal with the stressful part. For centuries researchers have studied emotional contagion -- the tendency for people to feel and mimic the emotional expressions of others during social interactions. For instance, many people have experienced sadness or negative moods as a result of a friend’s tragedy or a family member’s cynicism, say at the Thanksgiving table. Studies have even found that automatically mimicking the expressions of a friend (e.g., a frown) tricks our brains into assuming the emotions associated with that expression, such as anger or frustration, as our own feelings. It’s a testament to our fundamentally social nature. Well recent research shows that even commonplace rudeness from people who we aren’t close with psychologically spreads too. This research shows that when people are the target of annoying or rude behavior, or even just witnesses of it, that this activates negative thoughts in their minds, which consequently leads them to interpret ambiguously benign behaviors as rude and, worst, to behave rudely or even vengefully toward others. Thus, even low-grade negativity can infect us.

Choose Your Own Way

Luckily, research shows that happiness and positive emotions spread too. So I’m gratified to see societal trends toward extending empathy or compassion more toward others (e.g., the #BlackLivesMatter campaign, solidarity in response to the terrorist attacks in Paris, or the call to take in refugees from Syria). And while I’m also happy to see service and charity surge during the holiday season, the sheer amount of talk circulating both in daily life and in the media about the importance of being “grateful”, “giving thanks”, or being “generous” around this time of year can backfire if people see it as forced or inauthentic. Therefore, I’d like to clear the air and hopefully inspire you to “choose gratitude” now and beyond the season of thanks and giving.

You may have considered the fact that expressions of gratitude can be trite during Thanksgiving, and research supports you not just bowing to the seasonal pressure but figuring out a way to do gratitude your own way. So here’s the bottom line: the choice of gratitude is within your power more than you think and the choice itself tricks our brains and bodies more potently into feeling genuine joy than mere emotional contagion.

Choosing Gratitude for Good Things

First, the variety of gratitude I’m talking about is gratitude toward people who make our lives better, be it through acts big or small. That’s the first choice to make. So while you can start with savoring the sweet smell of pumpkin pie in the air, don’t stop there; thank Aunt Rose for enriching the bounty with her unique recipe and creativity. Realize that lots of people are busy this time of year and that there are always kind acts, small and large, to thank others for. It takes time and effort to brine a turkey! And all kinds of acts require a choice to be made and cost to be incurred by someone. Acknowledge that and how it matters to you (“I never forget the way my kids always devour your pumpkin pie”) and then go further by appreciating positive qualities in family members. Thank the brother-in-law for taking the time to find the perfect Pinot Noir for the meal and for their fine gastronomical tastes. Consider the traditions that make your holidays memorable and thank the people responsible. Heck, talk about ways for everybody to drop the electronics and contribute to the traditions while you’re at it so that everybody feels involved and special. Research shows that prioritizing social experiences over material things is related to the good life; one reason is that they are packed with unexpected little turns and surprises that end up becoming memorable.

Choosing Gratitude When It’s Tough

You might be thinking, “Sure, but what to do about Uncle Darren who always shouts angry obscenities during football games” or “Grandpa Joe who can’t help but share his unsavory political opinions at the table and `ruin’ the mood?”. To that I say get creative and plan ahead! What’s annoying to you is usually what makes someone unique; so celebrate your differences and appreciate the novelty those family members bring into your life. Life is complicated and nobody at the table has the answers. Don’t let annoyance infect you and be ready to choose gratitude! Plus, research shows that novelty matters for happiness too. Too late — you already replied in angry frustration to your uncle or your grandpa (perhaps because you didn’t get a chance to read this article first?)? No problem. Simply back up, apologize for getting worked up, and appreciate a personal quality that you value in them. It’s not too late to bring your behavior in line with an attitude of gratitude. And resolving the dissonance may further grow gratitude in your heart too.

The Brain on Gratitude

It’s worth considering recent groundbreaking neuroscience research on gratitude. While evidence has been mounting that gratitude has powerful cardiovascular and immunological benefits for people, researchers at the University of Southern California recently observed the experience of interpersonal gratitude under the scope of an fMRI machine. Without getting into the details of the neural mechanisms, it turns out that experiencing gratitude for others goes beyond activating the reward circuitry of the brain that produces satisfaction; it also activates other areas of the brain linked with the ability to understand others’ mental states, moral judgments, and interpersonal bonding

Choose Your Best Self With Gratitude

In short, the choice of gratitude, whether for gifts small or large, cuts deep. Even underneath the skin, the picture emerging is that expressing gratitude to others—be they a spouse, relative, or friend—promotes personal, relational and social growth, and generally helps us construct a more meaningful life. Take advantage of the season to choose gratitude in your own way.

And don't stop there. Follow through with grateful choices regularly and mix it up. When you tire of journaling your gratitude, write notes of thanks. Or simply say thanks to people around you, especially the important ones in your life, and be specific so they understand why how they matter to you. 

Fotolia/Forbes
Source: Fotolia/Forbes

Challenge yourself to look for opportunities to practice gratitude in small ways, large ways, set reminders even. Eventually, you will surround yourself with people who support you for your ideals and find yourself spending more time on what matters to you. That's the big goal in life really. Why not start now? That’s the way to enter the New Year with a better self in tow!

For more ideas on living gratefully and extending gratitude to others in your life, purchase Making Grateful Kids: The Science of Building Character

Copyright Giacomo Bono, Ph.D. 2015