Studies show benefits of gratitude can spark joy, melt stress, and even dial up immunity. But all the turmoil this year is making it harder to feel thankful and to reap those healing benefits. Here, four genius work-arounds
You love everything about the holiday season. But this year, your mood is more than a bit tempered by new challenges, such as financial fears and canceled travel plans to see family. As a result, your dining table, typically brimming with loved ones, is much emptier — as is your “gratitude tank,” leaving you feeling stressed and depleted.
From boosting resilience to enhancing happiness, you know the benefits of giving thanks, yet fear and uncertainty are overshadowing your attempt to summon the hallmark emotion of the holiday season. Instead of faking this positive mindset, it’s important to recognize your struggles.
“You’ve been inundated with reasons why gratitude is good for you,” notes psychologist Jill Stoddard, PhD. “But it’s only beneficial if it’s genuine — it’s actually more stressful to pretend to feel thankful.”
Indeed, reaping the rewards of this joyful outlook is a matter of being honest with your emotions. “Those who score higher on tests for authenticity also score higher on gratitude,” reveals Stephen Joseph, PhD, author of Authentic (Buy on Amazon, $14.71). Rather than trying to force yourself to feel something you don’t, the key to refilling your heart with the benefits of gratitude, he says, is simply to begin with the intention to notice a few small, good things around you. Read on for easy and uplifting strategies proven to restore thankfulness this Thanksgiving.
Overwhelmed? Create a ‘To-Be’ List
After a night spent tossing and turning over your never-ending to-do list, you wake up feeling drained. Far from enjoying the holiday spirit, you’re just trying to hold on and make this holiday seem somewhat normal — but the pressure you put on yourself to make everything perfect is leaving you run-down and low on hope.
When you feel overwhelmed, take a moment in the morning to make an intention, urges minister Galen Guengerich, PhD., author of The Way of Gratitude (Buy on Amazon, $22.49). This “first-light” meditation helps slow racing thoughts and lets you set your spiritual compass for the day. “It’s not so much about what you want to do, as it is what you want to be today,” he explains. “What qualities do you want to embody or ideals do you want to pursue?”
Just having a clear “gratitude goal,” such as, I want to enjoy beauty or I want to be there for someone, reduces stress dramatically. “We have to teach ourselves joy over and over again, and starting anew in the morning is the perfect time to restore our sense of what’s possible.”
Lonely? Follow a Gratitude Map
Your home is normally buzzing this time of year, but concerns over COVID forced you to cancel the big family get-together. While you’re still able to video chat, it isn’t the same, leaving you isolated and disoriented in this new “holiday normal.”
There are actually three types of gratitude, and tapping into each heals loneliness three times as quickly. “Research shows that first showing gratitude for people, then possessions, and finally processes, connects you to life in a more meaningful way,” reveals Linda Graham, author of Resilience (Buy on Amazon, $13.70) explaining that this gratitude “map” gives you direction when you’re not sure where to begin.
Start with people by focusing on loved ones; next think about possessions, from the roof over your head to your favorite tea kettle. Lastly, look to processes, the functioning of your body: I can see; I can hear; I’m alive. “These concentric circles deepen the benefits of gratitude into a spiritual practice, making you feel more connected to others.”
Anxious? Picture Your Wiser Self
As you chop the celery for your famous stuffing, the sound of the knife against the cutting board is soon drowned out by the din of your inner critic. Can I really handle what’s to come? you wonder, almost aloud, as your concerns about the future are compounded by blaring self-doubt.
Instead of letting anxiety take hold, take advice from someone who knows better: you. “Picture your future self five to 10 years from now,” urges Graham. “Imagine asking her, What did you learn? Which obstacles did you overcome?”
Not only does projecting yourself into the future and seeing yourself thrive boost your confidence, it also sparks the benefits of gratitude for what you have right now. “Consider finding a small object that symbolizes what you’ve learned from your wiser self,” she suggests, recalling a friend who chose a globe key chain as her “talisman” to remind her how connected she is to the world. “Visualizing your future boosts your courage in the present and makes you grateful for the resilience you’re building every day.”
Depressed? Put Love in Your Pocket
The holidays are tinged with more than a bit of melancholy this year, as you grapple with the collective grief the world is coping with. “This holiday evokes both gratitude and loss — and that’s okay,” assures Graham. “There is sadness as we look back on what we’ve gone through, and we need to acknowledge that.”
To help lift your spirits, begin by lifting someone else’s, urges Graham, sharing a powerful anecdote from decades ago of a fifth grade teacher who asked her students to write down one thing they appreciated about each member of the class. Astoundingly, 10 years later, several former students still carried their “affirmation notes” with them, and this exercise is used in classrooms across the country to this day.
“If you’re sad, consider sending an appreciative text or card to someone, sharing what you love about them,” she says. In dialing up their happiness, you’ll send your spirits soaring. “Then ask loved ones to send you little notes about what they love about you, which you can tack on the fridge or keep in your wallet — reading your list three times a day for 30 days is shown to change your view of yourself, helping you find more joy not just during the holidays, but all year long.”
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This story originally appeared in our print magazine.