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How to Adopt an Attitude of Gratitude—Even Now

How to Adopt an Attitude of Gratitude—Even Now

Even when it seems difficult, giving thanks can boost your well-being and resilience. Here’s how to grow your gratitude.

Updated on November 19, 2020 at 1:00pm EST.

This year, the holiday season is coinciding with another surge in COVID-19 infections and the aftermath of one of the most divisive elections in American history. Many families are separated due to quarantine, and 11 million Americans are still out of work.

So, when we imagine the holidays or sit down for Thanksgiving dinner (and wave to Grandma and Grandpa over Zoom or FaceTime), is it really possible to feel grateful?

Absolutely, according to noted gratitude researcher Robert A. Emmons, PhD, professor of psychology at UC Davis and author of The Little Book of Gratitude. “It’s under these conditions that we have the most to gain by a grateful perspective on life,” he says.

“When life is going well, it allows us to celebrate and magnify the goodness,” Emmons explains.

On the flip side, when life is going badly, gratitude provides some perspective. It allows us to view life in its entirety—and not be overwhelmed by a particular point in time, which will eventually pass, he adds.

It may be difficult to feel grateful during difficult times, but Emmons points out that you can work toward cultivating a sense of gratitude. Doing this all year round—not just during the holidays—can bolster your physical and mental well-being. Gratitude can provide a “psychological immune system” to cushion you against disappointments and create resilience, he says.

Remember, resilient people aren’t immune to stress or hardship. They just adapt to their circumstances differently, enabling them to get back up after being knocked down.

There is no time like the present to start growing your gratitude. Here are eight proven ways to do just that:

Keep a gratitude journal. One of Emmons’ most well-known studies, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, found that when students made a regular practice of writing down a list of things they were grateful for, they were happier and more supportive of others than those who wrote down lists of what annoyed them. Whether you jot down your list in a journal you keep next to your bed or type it into an app on your phone, make a point of counting your blessings and the good things in your life, from the smell of coffee in the morning, to the new season of The Crown, to the continued good health of your loved ones.

Write a thank-you letter. Was there a teacher in high school who recommended a book that changed your life? Did you ever have a neighbor who knocked on your door to welcome you when you moved to a new town and didn’t know anyone? Even if the good deed occurred years or decades ago, write them a letter of thanks, suggests Emmons. Even better—call them or meet in person (socially distanced, of course) to read it out loud. And then write two more: One 2009 study published in the Journal of Writing Research found that writing three different thank-you letters of about one page each was enough to make a significant change in levels of gratitude and happiness.

Give thanks as a family. Even if your extended family can’t get together this year for the holidays, there are many ways to express thanks together, Emmons points out. “Family members can compose a brief message of thanksgiving to one of their family members, and then read it on the phone, FaceTime or Zoom,” he says. “Or you can collectively select a person you know who rarely receives recognition for what they do [perhaps a school crossing guard or the always-smiling receptionist at the doctor’s office], and then surprise this person with a gratitude testimonial.”

Give back to others. The holidays are the perfect time to pay your gratitude forward by volunteering at a pet shelter, tutoring kids who are learning remotely or donating canned goods to a food pantry. (Go to VolunteerMatch.com to find virtual and in-person opportunities in your city.) “Think about how you can use your strengths and talents to help others,” recommends Emmons. “Paradoxically, we become more grateful when we become a giver rather than a receiver.” A July 2020 study published in the Journal of Psychology in Africa found that the more hours college-age volunteers spent volunteering, the greater their sense of gratitude.

Say thank you to a higher power. Part of cultivating gratitude is acknowledging that the good in your life comes from outside yourself—whether that means a higher spiritual power, nature or humanity, Emmons says. Whatever larger power you find meaning in, be sure to take a moment to express thanks.

Remember hard times in the past. “We associate gratitude with dwelling on the good but recalling the worst times in our lives can also be beneficial,” Emmons says. He suggests you think about one of the most difficult things that happened to you—perhaps you were fired from a job, or someone you loved passed away—and think of how you persevered and went on to experience happier times. “The realization that we made it through past tough times sets up a fertile contrast for present gratitude,” Emmons explains.

Look ahead to the future. Keep in mind that one day there will be a COVID-19 vaccine, children will go back to school in person, and we will all be able to travel, visit family and hug our friends again—and be grateful in advance. “If you’re struggling with feeling gratitude in your current situation, project yourself into the future and imagine how grateful you’ll be when your circumstances change,” says Emmons, who points out that this has been an especially important practice during the pandemic. “This is a defiant attitude that insists that gratitude is the best approach to life, no matter what.”

When all else fails, simply go through the motions. Just by physically saying the words “thank you” or smiling when someone holds the door open for you, you can trigger you brain to feel gratitude, says Emmons. “By living the gratitude that we don’t feel, we can begin to feel that gratitude that we live,” he says.

Medically reviewed in November 2020.

Sources:
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “CDC COVID Data Tracker.”
U.S. Department of Labor. “The Employment Situation-October 2020.” Nov 6, 2020.
American Psychological Association. “Building your resilience.” 2012.
Robert A. Emmons, Michael E. McCullough. “Counting Blessings Versus Burdens: An Experimental Investigation of Gratitude and Subjective Well-Being in Daily Life.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 2003, Vol. 84, No. 2, 377–389.
Toepfer, Steven & Walker, Kathleen. (2009). “Letters of Gratitude: Improving Well-Being through Expressive Writing.” Journal of Writing Research. 1. 181-198.
Ian I. Llenares, Jay A. Sario, Daisy Bialba & Joey M. Dela Cruz (2020). “Volunteerism influences on student resilience and gratitude.” Journal of Psychology in Africa. 30:3, 211-216.

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