Gratitude in 2020: A post-Thanksgiving reflection

When Thanksgiving rolled around this year, I heard two things:

  1. Pausing to think about what we are grateful for felt good.

And 2. Pausing to think about what we are grateful for felt hard. Like, especially hard this year.

 

Whether you’ve enjoyed your 2020 or can’t wait for it to be over, this year has unquestionably brought significant changes for all of us. In the midst of so much change, it can feel extra challenging to consider gratitude. However, it’s also extra important. So let’s talk about gratitude and what makes it a critical part of our wellbeing, especially in 2020.

 

For my gratitude skeptics, this one’s for you.

 

Why should we be grateful?

There is a lot of research on the benefits of being grateful (I could write a whole blog on this alone!) The short version is this: gratitude can help us have better quality relationships, improve our mental health and wellbeing, increase our happiness, and decrease our materialism. Gratitude also has the potential power to change our brain chemistry to make us feel more content, if practiced over time.

 

Doesn’t gratitude invalidate the objectively bad things?

There is always space for both (you can read more about using “both/and” here!) Gratitude is not meant to be a rose-colored lens with which to inaccurately view your grief or shame or hurt. That wouldn’t be helpful. Gratitude also can’t do much to prevent the bad stuff from happening to us. However, it can impact how much we suffer from it and can sustain us enough to then take meaningful action.

 

But what if everything is actually terrible?

There are certainly days when it feels like that. But as environmentalist and Buddhist scholar Joanna Macy wrote, “The great open secret of gratitude is that it is not dependent on external circumstance. It’s like a setting or a channel that we can switch to at any moment, no matter what is going on around us.” In those moments, even just identifying one thing that you may have otherwise taken for granted–your breath, your body, having food or shelter or clean water, the decisions you’ve made, or the decisions others have made–can be a useful gratitude practice.

 

Okay, but what do I do?

The good news is that there is plenty of research backing the notion that our ability to access gratitude is not a fixed quality; rather we can learn and practice and become better at it.

  1. Make it a part of your day – Like with trying to form any habit, the easiest thing to do is to incorporate it into a routine you already have–when you wake up in the morning, at the start of your work day, or at the dinner table. You can quietly acknowledge your gratitude or make this an activity you share with your partner or family. However, consistency is key! To help yourself remember, set a reminder on your phone or leave a post-it note somewhere where you’ll see it–on your bathroom mirror, on your computer, on your fridge.

  2. Write it down – I know, I know–this is an extra step and if you’re already skeptical of gratitude, you are probably averse to the cliché of the “gratitude journal”. However, writing brings extra intention to acknowledging gratitude. Instead of a journal, I know some folks who use slips of paper to contribute to a gratitude jar, which is then emptied and read at the end of the week or month. This is also a great way to incorporate family members into your new practice.

  3. Say “thank you” – Start thanking the people around you. Thank your partner, your coworker, your kids, your friends. Let them know why you appreciate them. You can also say “thank you” with a note or letter. You don’t even have to send it–just writing it can have benefits. However, for even further positive impact, consider reading the letter to the person for whom you wrote it. This “gratitude visit” can have long-term benefits for your own well-being and happiness!

  4. Shift your mindset from scarcity to abundance – When we live with a scarcity mindset, we constantly see the world as having winners and losers, and our actions become rooted in the fear that there are finite resources. The opposite is having an abundance mindset. This means that you recognize that there are enough resources and successes to be shared by all. By shifting your thoughts to consider what you have (instead of what you don’t), you can promote an abundance mindset.

Further resources on gratitude

For listening –

“How To Be Grateful When Everything Sucks” with DaRa Williams, Ten Percent Happier Podcast

For reading –

Living in Gratitude: A Journey That Will Change Your Life

365 Thank Yous: The Year a Simple Act of Daily Gratitude Changed My Life

The Gifts of Imperfection

For writing –

Good Days Start with Gratitude: A 52 Week Guide to Cultivate an Attitude of Gratitude (Gratitude Journal)