Thanksgiving is finally a week away! When 2020 began, I’m sure some of us made Resolutions and most of us had an idea of what we wanted to manifest in our lives by this time, as we are rounding the corner of welcoming another new year. Unless you have the ability to predict the future (which, if so, would be amazing, please lend me your skills), I doubt you had anticipated the rough and tumble journey that we have all endured, as individuals, as a nation, and as a global humanity. It was mid-March when I left my NYC studio apartment to temporarily move home with my parents in the suburbs, and yet, here I am EIGHT months later with my childhood address as my place of residence; my "new normal". Without going into too much detail, this year has been one of monumental change for me, physically, professionally, socially, emotionally, and even spiritually. Leaving a job to launch my business, being diagnosed with a benign brain tumour, leaving a decade long relationship, losing my grandmother...it's been a lot. So, knowing that I am only one of billions of people who have had to take hit after hit this year, what I am about to share is important and personal and a HUGE take-away from 2020.
Gratitude in The Face of Adversity
When I studied psychology as an undergraduate, I had been familiar with the concept of using therapies to treat disorders of the mind in a similar way as taking medications after one already becomes physically unwell. As I progressed in my studies, I was introduced to the school of Positive Psychology--a growing movement within the field that focused on studying healthy people and how we can improve subjective well-being to achieve happiness and fulfilment as individuals and as societies. I thought of this as similar to how we exercise our bodies and eat nourishing foods to prevent illness and improve our physical wellness. This field is growing and more studies are exploring what qualities cause people to thrive, feel joy, and experience fulfilment. As empirical evidence grows, it is becoming increasingly clear that gratitude plays a critical role in happiness, resilience, and success.
A pioneer in the school of thought within Positive Psychology was Abraham Maslow. Under his theory known as the hierarchy of needs, he created a pyramid that expressed the vertical existence of human needs with basic physical needs (water, shelter, rest) at the bottom and the concept of self-actualization (achieving one's potential as an individual) at the top. A trait he noted existed in self-actualizers was an allowance of oneself to experience "awe, pleasure, wonder, and even ecstasy..." from the most mundane of daily tasks. This gave such individuals inspiration and strength to grow and flourish in ways that made them feel fulfilled. Being awe-struck and grateful for a beautiful cool breeze, a gorgeous sunset, or the warm feeling of hugging a loved one, are some examples. Acknowledging and feeling gratitude for these seemingly insignificant things has a cumulative effect on building a stronger sense of self and character.
Many people will agree that it is effortless to feel grateful during great times, when all of our basic needs (and more) are met. But what about feeling grateful when it's harder, when you're experiencing trauma or disaster or immense change? Is it helpful or even possible?
Later studies on the topic of gratitude and positive re-framing, such as the studies performed by Coffman (1996), or Schwarz + Strack (1999) or by Lambert, et.al. (2009), explore how gratitude is not only possible during adverse times but it's a critical component to resiliency in the face of life-altering disaster, which was bountiful during this past year. People who re-frame negative events by focusing on positives that contrast the occurrences, like being grateful no one was hurt during a storm that destroyed one's home, or positive skills that will result as necessity to overcoming said events, such as learning new healthful practices after a medical diagnosis, are found to have a strong and consistent sense of coherence, happiness and resilience throughout the negative event. While studies on gratitude are still not given the attention they deserve, the growing collection of data provides evidence that gratitude as a tool, not only for survival but also as a mechanism to thrive, is not only useful but essential.
Speaking from personal experience, as I kept hitting road blocks this year, re-framing the negative events as they happened helped me discover new strengths, recover quicker, and maintain a generally high sense of health and happiness when all signs pointed to my defeat. So here is where I will make my call-to-action. As we finish out this year, and enter a potentially tumultuous winter season, try and develop a daily gratitude practice of your own and stick with it, especially when you feel defeated and it seems superfluous because that will be the time that you need it the most.
3 Tips for Your Gratitude Practice
There is no time like the present (literally, time is non-linear and the Now is all we have). If you are feeling generally well today, even if you're a bit down, start small and take the first step towards implementing your gratitude practice. In order to better implement these practices when we most need them, during the adverse times that will throw our routines into disarray, it is important to start and maintain these practices during times when we need them the least. It is easier to feel thankful and acknowledge the small, yet significant, aspects of our daily lives when we are already feeling positive and in a good place. Don't wait until you're overwhelmed with a multitude of negative emotions or blind-sided by a negative event to try and implement a daily practice because your chances of success will be lower which can have a compounding effect on said negative emotions; that is to say, when you already feel low, failing at a new goal will only make you feel lower.
Which leads us to our next tip:
2. Pick a Practical Practice:
Not everyone has the same schedule, goals, needs, or circumstances. In order to ensure higher adherence and develop a long-lasting effective practice, you want to make sure that your gratitude practice is functional for your life. If you're not into journaling, chances are that you're not going to suddenly become impassioned to wake up every morning and write out things for which you feel grateful. If you don't know how to meditate, or the thought of sitting still for twenty minutes makes you uncomfortable, then meditating on your gratitude is probably not your strategy...maybe you try it a few times before you hate it and call it quits. What is important when starting your gratitude practice, or any new lifestyle habit, is that you feel a personal connection to the practice and it fits into your life in a productive way. Here are some ideas on what your personalized gratitude practice can look like, though keep in mind, it can be anything that helps you reflect on the good things:
Journaling: make a list of things you feel thankful for when you wake up, on your lunch break or right before bed
Praying: add in a few extra prayers a day to give thanks for really small things like kind words from a colleague or a really delicious meal
Writing letters or cards of thanks to friends: whether you send them or not, writing a letter to someone who has helped you a lot or someone you love can be a great way to express gratitude
Guided or silent meditation: download an app or search free videos on YouTube, there are a lot of resources on this topic and a lot of them are free or available for a small fee
Start a gratitude group on social media with friends: if you're the kind of person who needs help in order to stay accountable, you can start a group or text message thread with someone you love and help remind each other every day about the little things that made you smile
Exercise without distraction: if you're not the type of person who can sit and meditate, moving your body in a peaceful setting can give you the opportunity to reflect on why you are grateful while taking the time to show physical appreciation for your body
Change up your routine: sometimes when we're so locked into a routine we overlook seemingly small positive things, so make a small change to your current daily routine by adding in a walk or calling a friend as a way to prompt a change in perspective
Again, this is a small list of suggestions. Take the time to think about what your practice will look like and set reminders in your phone so you don't forget. Pick something that is functional for your life and remember that it is okay, and natural, for your practice to evolve and change overtime as you grow as a person.
3. Consistency is Critical:
As with most new lifestyle changes, being consistent is pretty much non-negotiable (which is why the first two tips are important as they will help you stay on track). In the same way that you cannot lift weights once a month and build muscle, you will not gain cumulative benefits that improve your overall perceived quality of life if you only feel thankful once a year in November. This is why picking a practice that works for you and starting today is so important, because it will increase your chances of ingraining this practice into your daily routine. Our brain chemistry changes as we develop these new practices and what once seemed like a tedious task becomes effortless as long as we insist on integrating these tasks on a daily or weekly basis. Again, daily is ideal but don't say you'll do it every day if you only have time once a week. Start at once a week and increase the frequency as you can. When it comes to appreciating the little things in order to develop a stronger resiliency and more positive disposition, change is cumulative so be patient and do the work. The physical, emotional, social, and spiritual benefits that come with a gratitude practice will be worth the effort and at the end of the day, not much effort is really required to take a few minutes and recognize what makes your life unique and amazing.
So, in closing, as we prepare for what will generally be a much lonelier and very different holiday season, know that you can take charge of your life and use gratitude as a spark to create the bit of joy that will be missing. This year has been a disaster, for a lot of reasons, and in a lot of ways BUT, it has also been a great reminder of why the little things that we usually take for granted truly are so important. I'm sure connecting with a friend in-person means a lot more after months of being in lock-down compared to when we were afforded the luxury of physical interaction any day we chose. So, start take 5 minutes, right now, after you exit this post to pick your practice and put reminders in your phone for when you will perform it. You got this!
I am grateful for you! Be well.