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Do Not Wait for a Holiday to Express Gratitude

What are you thankful for?

Key points

  • Psychological studies have found connections between having a positive mental state and a gratitude practice.
  • Practicing gratitude can increase the benefits for people already undergoing psychological treatment, according to research.
  • Gratitude can be an antidote to anxiety at any time, so it is worth expressing all year-round, not just during the holidays.
Adobe Stock, 314760833
Source: Adobe Stock, 314760833

On top of the pandemic, natural disasters, economic and political division, we are now entering what is often the most difficult time of the year emotionally—the holidays. Beginning with Thanksgiving, and moving through Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa, you are either eagerly anticipating or fully dreading this season. Long before COVID-19 and everything else we have experienced since the beginning of last year, holidays were filled with joy and sorrow, great expectations and deep disappointments, togetherness, and loneliness. Some eagerly plan all year for these celebrations...and others would just like to skip those days or weeks on the calendar altogether.

But as those of us in the United States prepare to give thanks on November 25—in whatever way that will occur—it is important to remind ourselves how gratitude can play a significantly positive role in our mental health. It is worth exploring the feeling of being grateful, and how that emotion can actually contribute to year-round mental wellness and resilience.

What Is Gratitude and How Do You Express It?

Merriam-Webster defines gratitude as “a feeling of appreciation or thanks,” as well as “the state of being grateful.” The expression of thanks is likely one of the earliest memories for most of us, a parent or grandparent urging us to “say please and thank you.” I do not know anyone who dislikes being thanked; when someone appreciates something we do or say, we are reminded of our human connection, our ability to generate good feelings and accept them.

Earlier this year, in a Healthbeat blog post, Harvard Medical School suggested a number of ways that people can nurture a gratitude practice on a regular basis, including:

  • Writing thank-you notes
  • Thanking others mentally
  • Maintaining a gratefulness journal
  • Listing your blessings
  • Praying
  • Meditating

Last November, Bob Brody described in The Washington Post how he takes time every Thanksgiving to make a mental movie of highlights from his life. His tradition—his “mental health strategy”—not only highlights positive memories but also reminds him of the volume of good he has experienced in his life. Despite all the negatives associated with 2020, he was already anticipating the beneficial effects of his annual exercise in gratitude.

Consider the Connection Between Gratitude and Mental Wellness

“It isn’t always possible to change your circumstances, but you can change where you focus your mind and heart.” This statement by Stephanie Nicola on WebMD truly resonates with me. Nicola talked about the benefits of making a concerted effort to feel grateful, some of which we might not have imagined. They include:

  • Greater happiness
  • Less depression
  • More toughness in the face of adversity
  • Better physical health
  • Community building

This is not just a pleasant coincidence; physical and psychological studies have found connections between a positive mental state and a gratitude practice. For example, Nicola pointed out that when the brains of people who cultivate gratitude are scanned, there are changes in the prefrontal cortex making them tend to experience gratitude in the future.

As we look back on the past two years, it seems that the search for happiness should be a top priority! There is a powerful association between gratitude and greater happiness, according to positive psychology research. The connection between being grateful and feeling happy does not apply only to the present day; you can feel happier when you think thankfully about people and events that stand out from your earliest childhood memories as well as when you positively envision what the future will bring.

Speaker and author Dr. Margie Warrell wrote in Forbes how each person has some control over her or his mental wellness: “Ultimately our happiness and mental wellbeing is not determined by the conditions of our lives but by the story we tell ourselves about them.” She also talked about gratitude as a way to mentally prepare for the future. “The more you practice being thankful, the more you strengthen your brain's neural circuitry to see the good (and cope with the not-so-good) even in the hardest of times.” Think of your most optimistic family members and friends; do they habitually express gratefulness? You should not be surprised if they do.

Thankfulness Can Enhance Therapy, Too

Several years ago, research revealed that practicing gratitude can increase the benefits for people already undergoing psychological treatment. Joshua Brown and Joel Wong described in Greater Good magazine how they found that of almost 300 adults taking advantage of mental health counseling services, those who also wrote letters of gratitude said their mental health was much better 4 weeks after they wrote the letters...and even better after 12 weeks. The study also found that the gratitude letter writing diverted the writers’ attention from toxic emotions like envy, was helpful even if the grateful letters were never sent, and had lasting effects on their brains. In 2020, original research led to the publication of The Gratitude Project (a collaboration between the Greater Good Science Center and Robert Emmons of the University of California, Davis), looking at the foundation and impact of gratitude on our psychology.

Create a Pattern of Appreciation

So do not wait until you gather around a Thanksgiving table, either in person or virtually, to begin expressing gratitude. When you wake up every day, think of one thing for which you are grateful: that you and your family have managed to avoid COVID-19 infections, that you have a job that has offered you flexibility during the pandemic, that you have adequate housing or enough food to keep your family comfortable, that you have friends who check on you because you live alone.

You can be grateful even if awful things have happened to you, recently or in the past. Be thankful that you had time and made memories with someone you have lost, either to death or an ended relationship. Think gratefully about the bosses or coworkers who supported you during a difficult time at work, or for the doctors, nurses, and therapists who are helping you recover from a physical or mental illness.

Dr. Warrell sums it perfectly: “Gratitude is an antidote to anxiety and tonic for tough times. As such, we must practice it not just in the good times, but at all times.”

Thank you, readers—I am indeed grateful for this opportunity to communicate with you!


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