It’s the holiday season (or by now, maybe it isn’t). It’s a bit awkward, because for many of us, this year does not feel like one for which we should be mirthful, or most critically, thankful. Still, this is the season for thankfulness for all that we have and have surmounted and for the friends, family and community who sustain us.
In a year like this, it can be especially difficult to manifest that experience of gratitude. You may not be seeing your family – and may be separated by distance. Plus, you may have lost friends or relatives to the coronavirus.
And then there are material problems, those at the root of survival. There have been thousands of lost jobs, or people forced to give up their work to care for their children at home. Without a job, bills pile up and even mundanities like groceries or repairs become crucibles.
Even if your fridge and table are still full, it may be hard to feel thankful. Pandemic life can begin to blur into a kind of monotony of chores and repeated routines, lacking in moments of joy.
It’s been a tough year.
In the face of that, it is easy and understandable to discard the notion of thankfulness, and view holidays — or weekends –solely as an occasion for some degree of socializing and lots of food.
But is there a reason that you or I should try to to generate a feeling of gratitude despite those realities? Would it be useful to feel thankful even though one could easily argue that there is nothing to be grateful for?
The Upside of Gratitude
Feeling gratitude comes with a lot of useful side effects. They may not be obvious, but they emerge once we have cultivated the state of being grateful. Of course, that’s true for lots of things we do that take effort. Exercise doesn’t always seem like a good idea – but it too has multitudes of benefits after the fact. The same of healthy eating, studying and working hard to resolve a marital disagreement. So it is with gratitude.
Among other things, gratitude gives us a sense of wellbeing. There have been multiple studies showing that a feeling of gratitude increases our levels of serotonin –one of the neurotransmitters responsible for pleasure. Right now, so many people feel alienated, lonely, or depressed. The holidays often evoke those feelings anyway, but this year it is more pronounced. Surely, amid so much sadness and despair, it’s worth grasping at a straw that offers a sense of wellbeing.
There are some other surprising benefits of gratitude. Researchers evoked feelings of gratitude in study subjects using collected stories from Holocaust survivors. When they looked at the fMREs of those grateful-feeling subjects, they noticed an unexpected change in their brains; they showed greater sensitivity in the medial prefrontal cortex of the brain. That’s the part of your brain responsible for learning and decision making. For leaders, having a greater ability to learn and to make better decisions represent important optimizations. Think about the marginal additions to your results that would be possible if you were making just slightly better decisions or were a tad more creative.
Some of the other benefits of gratitude indicated by research are reductions in insomnia, anxiety and depression. It can even improve your romantic relationships! Right now, levels of insomnia are unusually high, and people are subjecting themselves either to forced separation or forced togetherness. Neither seems great for romance. But gratitude helps with all of those problems.
The benefits of gratitude extend beyond our own experience to the people to whom we express our gratitude. Employees who are thanked feel valued – as well as service providers who receive appreciation – they are both better motivated and work harder. Our organizations and economy therefore benefit from more gratitude.
A Gratitude Workout
With all these benefits, you may be wondering how you can start to cultivate gratitude despite all the reasons not to in 2020. Maybe you’re happy not to be ill or starving. But gratitude is not about believing you are better off than someone else. Yet, thinking that sort of thing may evoke gratitude. Gratitude is about being thankful for what you have, who you are, and how life is. But it may not come naturally, and like many virtuous habits, takes practice. Here are a few tips to start.
- Say thank you and mean it. Whether it’s your employee, your barista or the landlord — stop, look that person in the eye (from a safe distance, and masked), and say “thank you”. Better yet, specifically describe why you are grateful.
- Reflect on What You Have: Deliberately notice the great things in your life. Your brain, a bird’s song, the warm muzzle of your dog or a smiling neighbor. Take 15 seconds to reflect on those tiny pleasures every day.
- Start the Day Gratefully: Before you get out of bed tomorrow, name one thing aloud for which you are grateful: Your children, the turkey you plan to brine, or the two legs that will walk you to the bathroom.
On any chosen day –whether Thanksgiving or Christmas or your birthday — you could follow epidemiologist Dr. Michael Osterholm’s lead. “I will call a number of people in my life to whom I owe so much. I will thank them for their love and kindness and remind them that I’m so very glad they were born.”
After that day, stay thankful.
- Start a Gratitude Journal: End every day with a journal entry describing something in the preceding 24 hours for which you feel grateful. It may be for the cashier who chased down the elusive price of fennel, or the driver who let you in despite a huge line of cars.
These are practices that can become routine. But their power won’t vanish. We cannot think or experience two feelings at once (really!). So, if you preoccupy your brain with gratitude, you will displace anger, despair and loneliness. That’s a recipe for a more peaceful, happier and more satisfying holiday season and year.
I am grateful for your readership – a generous gift that I never take for granted. Thank you.