Before COVID-19, our holiday planning felt fraught with complicated family dynamics, lost loved ones and what now feel like frivolous high-stakes decisions as whether to cook the stuffing inside the bird or if homemade cranberry sauce is better than canned. We agonized over long car rides and uncomfortable sleeper sofas. But we also looked forward to hugs, lazy lounging with loved ones and unique family traditions.
Today, we are living with constant and extreme change layered with disappointment, worry and confusion. The COVID-19 pandemic is hard on all of us. Quickly changing health guidelines now limit our ability to gather, and it feels like everything is happening around us and to us. While we won’t give thanks for the circumstances themselves, cultivating gratitude for the good things that still remain can help you improve your sense of well-being.
Gratitude Is More Than Giving Thanks
Gratitude indicates appreciation for good fortune. We often direct gratitude toward other people, but we can also experience gratitude toward nature, a religious or spiritual blessing and even fate.
Studies, such as the ones featured here in Psychology Today, indicate that being grateful has all kinds of benefits. Gratitude is linked with increases in other positive emotions like happiness, hope and pride. It correlates with higher self-esteem and more generous behavior, as well as stronger relationships. It’s even associated with reduced stress and depression.
According to a 2012 study, “grateful people experience fewer aches and pains and report feeling healthier than other people.” This is in large part because these people make their health a priority and are more likely to seek health care when they need it.
Gratitude on the Brain
While the practice of gratitude certainly benefits our physical health, it can also improve our mental health. Gratitude seems to live in networks of the brain associated with processing experiences of the self and how we relate to the world. This includes portions of the prefrontal cortex known to be involved in our “executive” functions, such as judging which experiences and relationships are valuable and motivating. Gratitude may help our brains evaluate when to pursue relationships and activities that are aligned with our values.
Gratitude is proven to increase mental strength, resilience and reduce depression so that we can better respond to trauma and stress and improve our ability to process the world around us. Living collectively during a global pandemic has most certainly raised our stress and anxiety and shifted how we respond to these challenges, but gratitude can help us cope and move through this time.
Gratitude Comes with Practice
Like any other skill, gratitude can be cultivated with practice. The more we activate the “gratitude circuits” in the brain, the more automatic a grateful disposition becomes.
- The “3 Good Things” exercise is a nightly activity that involves naming three good things that happened during your day, and considering why each one occurred. This brings awareness to the goodness in our lives and who/what contributes to it, as opposed to our usual focus at the end of the day on what went wrong or did not get done. In controlled studies it’s been shown to increase happiness sustainably for months after the exercise was assigned.
- A gratitude letter is written to express thanks to someone you haven’t had the chance to thank fully. Most powerful when shared in person with the recipient, it can also be a meaningful experience to share by phone or in writing, or simply for the sake of writing it.
- A challenging gratitude exercise is to recall two recent events that didn’t go well or that are bothering you, and to look for a silver lining. Did anything good come out of it, or can you imagine someday something good coming out of it?
Try out each exercise to see what feels right for you. They can also make for good dinner time conversation — on video chat or in-person. While a Thanksgiving meal with your household is a great place to kick off a gratitude practice, it’s the daily rehearsal that seems to create gratitude routines in our brains and our lives that lead to beneficial effects. And despite hand-washing, gratitude and positive emotions are contagious—so spread freely!
Andrew Rosenfeld, MD, is a child psychiatrist with the UVM Children’s Hospital and is assistant professor and clinical director of outpatient child psychiatry at Larner College of Medicine at the University of Vermont.