The holidays are often among the most joyous and dreaded times of year. We vacillate between savoring food and company versus binging on food and waiting for company to leave. Togetherness and loneliness, appreciating loved ones and missing those not present—if you find yourself seeking some balance amongst such extremes, cultivating gratitude may be worth a try.
Gratitude indicates appreciation for some good fortune—not necessarily one that feels earned. Often directed toward other people, we can also experience gratitude toward more transcendent entities—nature, a religious or spiritual blessing, fate.
The Health Benefits of Gratitude
Studies have indicated 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.
Gratitude seems to live in networks of the brain associated with processing experiences of the self—reflecting on how we relate to the world and ourselves. This includes portions of the prefrontal cortex known to be involved in the “executive” functions, including 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.
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 involves each night 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 the silver lining. Did anything good come out of it, or can you imagine some day something good coming out of it?
Try out each exercise to see if any are a good fit for you. They can also make for good dinner time conversation. While a Thanksgiving meal 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.
Andrew Rosenfeld, MD, is a child psychiatrist at the University of Vermont Medical Center and Children’s Hospital.