Much has been written in recent years about gratitude. How gratitude affects us, the science of gratitude, the power of gratitude and its effects on the mind, spirit and yes, the body, since all are intertwined. Those who study such things – psychologists and researchers in the area of positive psychology – note that gratitude is strongly associated with personal happiness and feelings of well-being.
The Thanksgiving holiday itself began as an expression of gratitude in the early 1600′s as the early colonists celebrated that year’s good harvest, and their appreciation of it. Over the centuries, it has evolved in this country to become a time when families come together to celebrate their appreciation of each other and the abundance in their lives. Family, friends – and food – are at the heart of this holiday centered on gratitude.
So what are some of the benefits of cultvating a grateful mindset? According to University of California, Davis, psychology professor Dr. Robert Emmons, who has done extensive research on the subject, gratitude can have an enormously beneficial effect on one’s health, both emotional and physical. Grateful people tend to take better care of their health, exercise more, and have more energy. Dr. Emmon’s findings also indicate that an “attitude of gratitude” can strengthen relationships and communities, and help individuals to better manage times of stress and adversity. Grateful people tend to be more optimistic, a characteristic which in turn can help boost the immune system. Gratitude helps us focus more on what we have, rather than what we don’t have, which helps us to feel more satisfied with our lives in general, and thus contributes to an overall sense of well-being.
With all these advantages to having a grateful mindset, how can it be cultivated? The good news is that choosing to be grateful is a habit that can be practiced and grows stronger as you count your blessings. Some methods that have been used to cultivate gratitude are:
- Keeping a daily gratitude journal. Each day write down 5 things in your life that you are grateful for. These can range from the basics of life such as food, a home to live in, your family, friends or pets, to a beautiful sunset or sunrise, a favorite piece of music, or a beautiful day at the beach.
- Share your gratitude with others. Let your spouse, or a co-worker, know that you appreciate them or acknowledge them for a job well done. Or write a note of thanks to someone for the gift of their time or their wisdom. Studies have shown that those who express appreciation to others also feel more positive towards those others.
- Pray and give thanks for your blessings to God or the Divine, the Universe, or Mother Earth. Just say thank you.
- Meditate. You can practice mindfulness meditation and focus on your blessings in the moment – peace, quiet, the sound of the rain, or the wind in the trees.
Make it a practice to focus on the goodness in your life on a dailybasis. The more you practice counting your blessings, the more you will appreciate what you have, and the better you will feel.
So Thanksgiving is right around the corner and, of course, Christmas and Hanukkah are right behind it. And every year I vow to simplify my life and what I do and really make it about the spirit of the holiday this year. I like to think that I have made some progress in this area but, let’s face it, it is a busier time of year. There are certain things that won’t happen if you don’t make them happen – things like Thanksgiving dinner, Christmas trees, and the sending out of holiday greetings, if you do that sort of thing. I like to do all of them and I also like to look forward to the season, instead of strategizing about how to get through it relatively sanely. The holidays do add more to what already seems like a very full plate for a lot of us. For me, though, its significance lies in that it has become the time of year I connect with others that are important to me, both family and friends, and some people that may simply make up the fabric of my daily or weekly routine.
We have always sent out a family holiday card each year and that has become an important tradition for us. From the first year of my son’s life to the present, we have sent out a picture postcard greeting of the three of us. There are special people in my life who have never met him because they live far away, but have been able to (sort of) watch him grow up from year to year. Every year I hear from at least one person who tells me how much it has meant to them to be included in our lives this way. It’s been a great way to stay in touch, even if only occasionally, and so it is something I will keep on doing. It adds meaning to their lives, and ours, too.
Each holiday, I get together with a group of dear friends and colleagues for a dinner to celebrate the season. This year we have decided that, instead of our usual gift exchange, we will each make a donation to a charity of our choice instead. Everyone was in agreement when this sugggestion was first made, and I think it gave all of us a good feeling to know that we were going to contribute something in the spirit of the season on each other’s behalf. As heartfelt as a gift might be, it seems to touch a bit more deeply to know that maybe someone will be provided a hot meal, or a grocery card for food they otherwise might not have to eat. And, once again, it makes the holiday a bit more meaningful. I know it has been been important for me over time to find that meaning at this time of year. It makes the season richer, gives it a sense of purpose. And I’m the one who benefits. Whether it’s a homemade treat for co-workers, donating to a food or toy drive, giving the gift of your time to help out at a holiday event, or even just listen to someone and give them your full attention – whatever you do this season that brings a sense of purpose will come back to you in countless ways. You’ll feel good about your contribution, an increased sense of community, and more connected to those around you. And that adds up to feeling good.