Fall and winter can be a difficult time of year. There is a lot of pressure to feel joyful, and when the cheery décor surrounding our workplaces, homes, and city is a direct mismatch to how we are feeling, it can foster an even deeper sense of sadness. Thoughts like, “It’s the holidays and I still can’t be happy?!” can overwhelm us and trigger feelings of guilt and shame. Finding joy and happiness can feel like an insurmountable task. But a powerful step in the direction of positivity is gratitude. Psychologist Robert Emmons, PhD is an expert in gratitude and defines it as “a sense of wonder, thankfulness, and appreciation for life.” Dr. Emmons divides gratitude into two parts: (1) acknowledging the good in our lives; and (2) acknowledging that the source of that goodness is outside of ourselves. It may sound tough to think about giving when you feel empty, but tapping into feeling grateful or thankful allows us those pinpricks of light to change your otherwise gloomy perspective.
How An Attitude of Gratitude Works
Depression and negative emotions turn us inward. It is hard to consider others or anything outside of ourselves and how bad we feel. Our perspective is skewed to a catastrophizing state of what is terrible and how life is going to get worse. When we feel this way, it is common to think that the curated version on social media is actually true and everyone else is having a great time during the holidays. Feeling bad can make us think, “Look at that! Everyone in Chicago is at the Christkindlmarket enjoying all sorts of holiday fun with their significant others but me!” Yikes, that sounds super gloomy. But those are irrational and definitely unhelpful thoughts. Implementing gratitude can allow us to have a bigger perspective and shift away from negativity. If you are feeling thankful, you are glad something happened or even happy something is over. If you narrowly miss getting sideswiped on your commute, you likely take a beat and think, “Wow, that could have been bad.” Depressive thoughts would keep you stuck. Those thoughts might include, “I am so careless,” or, “Why are bad things always happening to me?” Taking on an attitude of gratitude, however, allows you to zoom out from your own experience to see the bigger picture, like changing the screen resolution on your thoughts. There is that sense of “Whew, I survived that!” That feeling is gratitude. We are able to affirm what is good in our lives or in the moment instead of getting stuck with negativity.
How to Get Started on Thankfulness
This time of year, there are likely plenty of school-aged children tracing their hand and then turning their handprints into turkeys. Joining the ranks with the hand turkey might also be the practice of going around the table at Thanksgiving dinner and saying what you are thankful for. If you have been part of this table scene, how many times have you said pumpkin pie? Or the Bears? Maybe those aren’t profound moments of gratitude for humanity but they’re a great start. A way to expand past the amazing stuffing or the scoreboard on Thanksgiving is to first find some time that you can collect your thoughts. Start by taking out a journal or a blank document on your computer screen. Try to start a list of things for which you are grateful. This can be a feeling or an actual event. It can be a person, place, or thing. You can experience gratitude for something very tiny or something huge. Maybe you structure your thoughts around what you are grateful for at a certain time of day or time of year. Maybe you consider who you are grateful for and think a little more deeply about why. You can write bullet points or a list. You can write a letter to express your thankfulness to someone and you don’t even have to send it. Journaling is a great practice but there is no one-size-fits-all, right-or-wrong way when it comes to gratitude. And these are your own thoughts so be honest. No one gets to tell you that you aren’t actually experiencing gratitude.
How to Expand on Gratefulness
Gratitude is about seeing the good in life, but ironically focusing on your challenges or hard times can also be a good place to start. Remember when we were talking about feeling depressed? Making a leap to feeling thankful during the holidays may be too much. But if you are struggling or have been challenged in the past, examining how you got through it or what you learned from it can be a great way to tap into gratitude. You don’t have to fully jump into joy and reverence. But acknowledging in even a small way how now is slightly better than then or how you have grown and learned since that previous bad time is a great way to change your perspective.
Volunteer work and contributing in a philanthropic way can help foster a sense of gratitude. You can acknowledge how others need your help and you can see how others in need feel grateful. You can see how thankful someone feels when they are in need and you give them something they need. Helping others can trigger you to think about how others have aided you or currently support you. In this way, you are giving back and getting all at once. What a great deal!
How to Manage Roadblocks with Giving Thanks
Sometimes, gratitude is hard to come by, such as when you find that you are getting stuck on journaling or find yourself feeling bored. If you are starting to check out and you find yourself wanting to say something like “blah, blah, blah,” then put down your gratitude journal. Because here’s the thing: Gratitude does not work if you are going through the motions. You may need to change it up. If writing down grateful thoughts does not trigger positive feelings, perhaps you need to say those thoughts aloud to yourself or mediate on those thoughts. Another way to freshen up your practice is to change your expectations—maybe daily gratitude practice feels thankless but taking time to journal once a month works much better for you. Gratitude can be a personal practice but you can also share your feelings with others. You can communicate to friends, family, strangers that you appreciate them. They’d probably appreciate your gratitude, too. And do not worry, you won’t run out of gratitude. This is an emotion that can replenish itself so there is plenty to go around.
An important trap to avoid with gratitude is judgment. If you are journaling and those nasty “shoulds” start appearing, do your best to reset yourself and challenge those unhelpful thoughts. When thoughts like, “Well, I should really be grateful for this nice house but I actually hate it” or anything that makes you feel stuck creep in, put away this exercise and try again another time. Or try to counter that thought with something like, “But I do really feel grateful for my neighbors.” Your feelings are valid and you get to appreciate and value and express gratitude for what matters to you. There are ways to expand or grow. You can work on being more mindful and changing what you notice around you. But gratitude is about you feeling what you feel and you are the expert when it comes to that. No pressure to be grateful for anything. First try to examine what you are grateful for and if you want that to expand, keep asking yourself how you feel until you locate the pieces that trigger gratitude in you.
Gratitude, like cooking a perfect turkey, takes practice and the right conditions. Use this time of year to start thinking about and noticing things you are grateful for and see this as an opportunity to change your perspective and your brain. You will be supporting yourself and the world around you, which is goodness you can get on board with regardless the time of year.