In today’s world, it can sometimes be difficult to find gratitude. Newspaper headlines are depressing. Social media feeds can be overwhelming. And, our lives can be downright exhausting.
If I’m being honest, sometimes gratitude feels like a cliché. It’s being talked about so much that it can be hard to really engage in a meaningful way. In the past two weeks, I have felt bombarded with “the gospel of gratitude” that I almost feel pressured to feel grateful for things even when I’m not.
But, research tells us that prioritizing gratitude can make all the difference in our well-being. Harvard Medical School reports, “Gratitude is associated with greater happiness. Gratitude helps people feel more positive emotions, relish good experiences, improve their health, deal with adversity and build strong relationships.”
Grateful people experience more joy, love and enthusiasm, and they are buffered from destructive emotions such as envy, greed and bitterness. Gratitude also reduces lifetime risk for depression, anxiety, and substance abuse disorders, and it can foster healing and resilience. And, people who experience gratitude cope better with stress, recover more quickly from illness, and enjoy more robust physical health.
So, it seems like gratitude is something to prioritize, right? But, how exactly do we do it?
I believe that gratitude is a practice. It isn’t just an emotion we feel now and then, but a virtue that we actively cultivate. It begins by paying attention, by noticing things that we often take for granted. Did I get a good night’s sleep? Did I get my children to school without a meltdown? Did someone at work treat me with kindness?
As David Whyte says, gratitude is recognizing the “underlying gift of life and … that we are miraculously part of something, rather than nothing. Even if that something is temporarily pain or despair, we inhabit a living world, with real faces, real voices, laughter, the color blue, the green of the fields, the freshness of a cold wind or the tawny hue of a winter landscape.”
To me, it’s important to remember that gratitude isn’t just about the “happy stuff.” If I’m really paying attention, then I must acknowledge the difficult and painful moments in my life as well. While they may be hard to live through, I know they are instructive and further me on my own path of being present.
I’ve learned that we can “encode” our gratitude by writing about it — in a journal, in notes kept in a “gratitude jar,” or in a simple email or text. Writing can magnify the sources of goodness in our life and help us think about things we’ve gained from our life experiences, even the most challenging.
In one study, people randomly assigned to keep weekly gratitude journals exercised more regularly, reported fewer physical symptoms, felt better about their lives and were more optimistic about the upcoming week compared to people who only recorded hassles. In another, young adults who kept a daily gratitude journal reported higher alertness, enthusiasm, attentiveness and energy compared to those who did not.
Finally, expressing gratitude completes the feeling of connection. Many people in your life have helped you in one way or another. Have you thanked them? Can you find a way to express appreciation that brings you closer to others?
Here are some things that I do to boost gratitude in my own life:
» I challenge myself to look for goodness in the mundane, in the everyday stuff. For me, it’s the ability to walk to lunch, enjoying fresh raspberries in December or curling up with my favorite cozy blanket.
» I take time each week to jot down things for which I am grateful. I have a gratitude bowl in my office, and I try to pop something in there at least once a week. It’s a fun way to “take a break.” I also find them useful to re-read during weeks that are particularly challenging.
» I take time each week to write a thank you note — by text or email — to at least one person who has impacted me. Sometimes, it’s appreciating something that happened last week. Other times, it’s something from last year. Either way, it’s a little note that brightens their day while also brightening mine.
In the end, the most important thing for me is finding authentic gratitude, rather than just going through the motions. During this “season of gratitude,” I am reminded to dig deeper. I’m using this month to appreciate what I have rather than always reaching for something more. I’m prioritizing time to affirm the good things in my life and to relish little pleasures.
I’m realizing that during the hustle and bustle of December, the practice of sincere gratitude may be the best holiday gift of all.
— Alana Walczak is CEO of the nonprofit CALM (Child Abuse Listening Mediation), a leader in developing programs and services that effectively treat child abuse and promote healing, as well as programs that help prevent abuse through family strengthening and support. Click here for more information, or call 805.965.2376. Click here for previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.