Why Practicing Gratitude Matters, Even When Everything Is Awful

For many, it will be a challenging Thanksgiving.

Political realities and an environment of hatred and animosity can make a holiday that’s organized around a sense of happiness and gratitude feel obsolete or even inappropriate. Cultivating a sense of thankfulness may feel like the last thing anyone wants to do right now. But it’s actually more important than ever ― at least, according to science. 

“Gratitude reduces all stress, big and small,” gratitude researcher Robert Emmons, a psychology professor at University of California, Davis, told The Huffington Post. 

This is especially important to keep in mind during tumultuous periods like this one, because it can help counteract the negative emotions that threaten your emotional and physical health.

“When we experience resentments, we make ourselves envious, angry, bitter and annoyed again and again,” Emmons explained. “We are weighed down in negativity, prevented from accessing gratitude and serenity.”

So how do we generate a sense of gratitude when legitimate concerns over the future, well-being or safety persist? The trick, according to Emmons, is to catch yourself in a negative thought and redirect it. For example, consider a stressful ideation you’ve had circulating in your mind lately. Maybe it is something to the effect of, “Things will never get better.”

This thought can make you feel you’re in deficit, rather than surplus. Instead, try recalling the good things in your life ― your support system, your job or even just your daily run ― as a way to protect yourself against anxiety, even if just for a moment ― or a designated day. 

In other words, you might not be able to control external, distressing events, but you can still use positive psychology to keep your own internal waters calm. And that can help keep you strong if you do want to address what’s bothering you later.

“If we can short-circuit anti-grateful thoughts, we have good chance of taking control over our emotional lives and developing an emotional resilience that is immune to changing circumstances,” Emmons said.

How to practice gratitude

There are simple ways to exercise gratitude during this contentious time. And you’ll want to to do so: The health benefits of the practice are worth the work. Research shows thankfulness can lower your blood pressure, help you live longer and sleep more deeply. Below are a few methods to get you there:

Try going around the table.

Previous research suggests that teenagers may not benefit from performative gratitude, such as going around the table to say what you appreciate. But experts suggest that you don’t roll your eyes at the round-robin just yet. 

“I highly recommend [going around the table],” Randy Kamen, a psychologist an author of Behind The Therapy Door: Simple Strategies To Transform Your Life, told The Huffington Post. “Instead of all the family fighting ― and who doesn’t have that? ― shift your mind to what’s good.”

Try to zero in on the fact that you still made it through another year and that you are indeed grateful to be here, Kamen added.

Engage in a gratitude-boosting activity.

You can jot down a list of things you are grateful for, which research shows is a powerful way to conjure up a good mood, reduce stress and improve well-being. Can’t think of anything? Here are 100 items to consider. You can also meditate, pray or thank someone. 

Decide to be thankful. 

Feeling a sense of gratitude will always to be a choice. As author Barry Schwartz wrote in the book The Paradox of Choice, your gratitude list will often consist of the little things. This could be the pleasing way light streams through your bedroom window or a piece of swordfish for dinner cooked exactly as you like it. Only every so often will something huge hit your list, such as a job promotion or an incredible first date.

Emmons also recommends asking yourself these three questions as a nightly exercise:

  1. If I freely chose to practice gratitude, would the quality of my life improve?
  2. Would my self-esteem improve?
  3. Would I be less miserable and more effective and energetic?

“I think the answer to these questions is an unqualified yes,” he said. We’d have to agree.

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