Gratitude — An Attitude for the Entire Year
November brings the shift to daylight savings time and renewed focus on gratitude as we approach Thanksgiving. During the Thanksgiving season, we collect canned goods for the local food bank, read articles on community outreach programs, and take time during our gatherings to express our thanks for the abundance in our lives. Sadly, our gratefulness quickly fades in the rapid transition from abundant Thanksgiving feasts to Black Friday shopping and holiday “wish lists.” But we’d be wise to cultivate an “attitude of gratitude” all year long.
Researchers have found that gratitude can improve our relationships, our physical and mental health, increase our self-esteem, and help us be more resilient when faced with stressful or traumatic events. While many studies looked at well-functioning individuals who possess good coping skills, more recent research validates the practice of gratitude for individuals with mental health issues.
In 2017, researchers at Indiana University conducted a study of college students seeking mental health counseling services. The participants were divided into 3 groups. One group was asked to write a letter of gratitude to another person each week for three weeks, the second group was asked to write about their deepest thoughts and feelings about negative experiences and the third group did not do any writing activity. Not surprisingly, the letter writing group reported significantly better mental health up to 12 weeks after the letter writing. Similar results were documented in studies with high school students using gratitude journals. What is significant, in my opinion, about these studies, is the value of not just naming what we are grateful for, but writing it down.
The ancient yogis knew the value of gratitude, too. One of the virtues described in the Yoga Sutras is santosha, meaning contentment or satisfaction. Santosha is both an attitude and a state of deep inner peace, often characterized as a lack of desire for what others have. It is about appreciating what you have rather than focusing on what is missing or lacking. I often recommend gratitude practices to private students as a means for shifting their mental attitude from one of scarcity to one of abundance. This shift has profound consequences for their physical, mental and spiritual health.
So how do we practice gratitude and develop a greater sense of contentment? It is a journey, but here are three ways to get you started—
- Keep a gratitude journal— Find a time each day to write down 3-5 things that bring you joy and a sense of gratitude. They don’t have to be big things such as a job promotion. Small things matter—a lot. Think about the things you take for granted each day: sunshine, hot water, a phone call from a loved one or friend, the ability to speak, see, smell, hear . . . The list is endless.
- Write “thank you” notes– It is so easy to send a quick text or email, but think how wonderful it is to receive something other than a bill or solicitation in the mail. Cultivate the art of writing thank you notes and teach your children to do the same.Food for further thought, in the studies mentioned above, the thank you note writers could choose whether to send the notes. Even if they chose not to mail their letter, they reaped the benefit of expressing gratitude. So write that thank you note to your college professor or a coach who influenced your life even if you don’t know where to send it.
- Start a family “gratitude jar”– My husband and I started this as a New Year’s tradition several years ago after someone suggested the idea to me. We designated Friday evenings as “gratitude nights” and during dinner would share one thing or person for whom we were grateful. It was an opportunity to reflect on our week and acknowledge how someone or something had enriched our lives. We wrote our “gratitude” on a slip of paper and stored them in a special jar until the following New Year’s Eve when we re-read all the things we’d written during the year. It was a great way to reflect on the many blessings and joys that filled our lives throughout the year. Think how fun it would be to start this tradition in your family this Thanksgiving or Christmas or Hanukkah.
Gratitude can enrich our relationships, improve our physical, mental and spiritual well-being and change our perspective from one of lack to one of abundance and joy. Now that is something we can all be grateful for!