Gratitude: An Attitude for the Entire Year
Each November brings a renewed focus on gratitude as we approach Thanksgiving. During this season, we collect canned goods for the local food bank 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. Here’s why.
Researchers have found that gratitude can improve our relationships, our physical and mental health. It also increases our self-esteem and helps 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 challenges.
For example, researchers at Indiana University conducted a study of college students seeking mental health counseling services. The participants were divided into 3 groups. One group wrote a letter of gratitude to someone each week for three weeks. The second group kept a journal of their deepest thoughts and feelings about negative experiences. And the third group did not engage in any type of writing activity.
Not surprisingly, the letter writing group reported significantly better mental health up to twelve weeks after they stopped. Similar results have been documented in studies of high school students using gratitude journals. What I find significant about these studies is the value of not just naming what we are grateful for, but writing it down.
Santosha: The Attitude of Gratitude
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 three to five 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 encourage your children and grandchildren to do the same.
It’s important to note that in the studies cited 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 even if you don’t know where to send it, write a thank you note to your favorite college professor or to a coach who influenced your life.
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 us.
We decided to designate Friday evenings as “gratitude nights.” During dinner we’d shared one thing or person for whom we were grateful. It was an opportunity to reflect back on our week and acknowledge how others had enriched our lives. We wrote our “gratitude” on a slip of paper and stored them in a special jar. At the end of the year, on New Year’s Eve, we emptied the jar and 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. It can also shift our perspective from one of lack to one of joyful abundance. Now that is something we can all be grateful for! Happy Thanksgiving!