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Gratitude Rituals During the Holidays

Studies have shown that those who are grateful lead happier lives.

CCO Creative Commons
Source: CCO Creative Commons

In the midst of the chaos of the holidays, this seems like the perfect time to begin a gratitude ritual. My father was a Holocaust survivor, and every day of his life, he expressed gratitude, so at an early age, I, too, learned to be grateful.

This is probably one of the reasons why Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. Its focus is on gathering together with loved ones for food and conversation, building a sense of interconnectedness. Giving thanks or showing gratitude is about loving and acknowledging ourselves and others. Therefore, November really is the ideal month to celebrate gratitude.

I was in third grade in 1963 when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. The date was November 22, just a week before Thanksgiving. He was a beloved president, with considerable integrity and wisdom. He led a renewed drive toward public service and held a strong belief in the Civil Rights Movement.

He was also someone who believed in the importance of gratitude. He once said, “We must find time to stop and thank the people who make a difference in our lives.” The truth is, many of us do not express gratitude often enough, nor do we marvel at the lives we’re living. Studies have shown that those who are more grateful—and express it—are more likely to be happy and less prone to depression.

This is one of the many reasons why we should infuse each and every day with gratitude; it should truly be a built-in component of our everyday lives. Expressing it is like using a tuning fork and letting its vibrations send joy throughout the universe. Offering thanks fosters an appreciation of and a refreshing perspective on our lives while positively affecting our physical, psychological, and emotional well-being. It can also offer opportunities for spiritual growth.

Janice Kaplan, in her book The Gratitude Diaries (2015), remarked that in addition to the fact that expressing gratitude is fun, looking for the positive in her experiences has changed her attitude toward life. She said that it’s not about how they have affected her happiness, but it’s how she chose to frame them, which has greatly impacted her.

Writer Oliver Sacks, who suffered from pancreatic cancer at the end of his life, said that expressing gratitude was responsible for his staying alive longer than doctors said he would. Even though he knew his days were numbered (he passed away in 2015), he was grateful for the opportunity to look back and see his final weeks in the context of his entire life, which helped him maintain a deep sense of connection. He said that while he was afraid of dying, his main emotion at the end of his life was a feeling of gratitude.

In addition to informing others what we’re thankful for, gratitude journaling is a ritual that can help remind us what we’re thankful for. This type of writing focuses on the positive and offers an excellent opportunity to be mindful of and grateful for those things we might otherwise take for granted. The art of gratitude journaling also gives us a chance to slow down and pay attention to all the good in our lives. Writing helps organize our thoughts and can facilitate healing and transformation. And, when we have difficult times, going back and reading what we’ve written in the past can serve as a useful tool for healing.

As a two-time cancer survivor, I keep a gratitude journal to remind me of all the positive aspects of my life—I believe that we all have them, but often forget them. I will always remember what the oncologist who diagnosed my second bout with cancer said: “This is the time to look for the joy in your life and have it encircle everything you do.” This really helped me come to grips with my situation.

Similar to other types of journaling, there are no rules, but here are some writing prompts to jump-start the ritual of gratitude journaling:

  • Make a list of at least five people to express gratitude to. Beside each name, write a few sentences explaining why.
  • Jot down at least five experiences that elicit feelings of gratitude. Write a few sentences on why you feel the way you do.
  • Recall at least five items that represent joy, poignant moments, or treasured memories, and explain the meaning behind them.
  • Write down the titles of at least five books that you’re grateful to have read, which were especially meaningful for you, and say why.
  • Recall at least five trips or adventures that impacted you, and note their significance.

Thanksgiving Exercise: Before or after your Thanksgiving meal, choose a seat as an “Appreciation Chair.” Ask each guest to take a turn sitting in it.

While in the chair, each guest has a chance to tell the others at the table why he or she appreciates them. This is an opportunity to express gratitude for, or kindness to, the significant individuals in our lives. Happy Thanksgiving!