Gratitude: More than just a platitude

Many people report that the end of the year is a stressful time. For some, the end of the year marks the realization that they didn’t get to all the things they wanted to accomplish, the bank account isn’t what they’d hoped it would be, or there is disappointment of another year marked in an unsatisfying job or domestic situation. For others, the end of the year brings the holiday season and family gatherings, requiring either patience to emotionally endure strained or complicated relationships or the very real stress of holiday shopping and the costs that come with it. Also, from Thanksgiving on, people are told they need to be in the holiday spirit and should spread peace and gratitude.

But often, when we feel we’re in a difficult or trying situation, the last thing we want is someone to tell us to be grateful.

However, feeling gratitude is the biggest boost we can give ourselves.

In fact, plenty of research has studied the different ways in which gratitude enhances the feelings of well-being among people who practice regular exercises in gratitude.

Well-being wasn’t the only improvement; happiness as well as physical health can be boosted when we focus on the positive aspects of our lives. So before dismissing seasonal gratitude as a saccharine Pollyanna glad game, know that there are very practical reasons to participate in and promote gratitude year-round.

Much of the stress we carry around is a result of guilt, usually self-imposed. Oftentimes, the guilt is for things left undone. This can be a project left unfinished or an email or letter never responded to—or maybe a delayed ‘thank you’ that we meant to send. There is no statute of limitations on gratitude—and even a belated acknowledgment will be meaningful to the other person and increase our own happiness. What’s better: the chemical effects of such a mood boost related to this act can last in our bodies for up to a month, according to a study led by famous psychological researcher Martin Seligman. He assigned various tasks to subjects designed to trigger their feelings of well-being; only one of those involved gratitude. Subjects were asked if they felt they needed to properly thank someone for a kindness done. Then the subjects wrote a letter and hand-delivered it to the person. After all the results were tabulated, the letter of thanks made the most profound impact on subjects’ happiness.

But even if we don’t need to reach out to another person, we can be grateful toward ourselves for completing the tasks that have gnawed at us during the year. Checking off even the smallest of our to-do items can go a long way in reducing stress and promoting gratitude-induced well-being.

In another study published in Applied Psychology, participants were students who complained they couldn’t sleep because of overstimulating thoughts and worries that caused their minds to race rather than relax. Researchers then instructed the participants to spend fifteen minutes before going to sleep writing in a gratitude journal, listing everything that made them thankful. Within a week, the subjects reported improved sleep due to quieter minds.

Furthermore, repeated exercises show that employees work better when bosses and supervisors show gratitude for their work. When bosses go out of their way to appreciate employees, employees then feel as though what they do matters and are more likely to find satisfaction in what they do.

And in relationships, couples who kept nightly diaries that listed the considerate things their partner had done for them that day reported to feel closer to each other and had higher levels of relationship satisfaction than before keeping the journals. Even more interesting, when comparing journals, the partners often listed actions that the other hadn’t recalled doing, or at least had not gone out of his or her way to do in order to be “considerate.”

This December, remember that it takes very little sometimes to feel appreciated; but showing gratitude for the small things will make others feel better and will increase your own personal satisfaction. So the next time a family member wants to play a game to see what everyone is grateful for, humor them. Taking stock of the good things, at the end of the year and throughout the next, will help keep you centered, focused on what’s most important, and help you see how much you have going for you.

If you feel stuck in a cycle in which you’re unable to feel grateful for even the small things, it may be time to talk to someone. For help kick-starting your gratitude or to cope with the holiday season, contact me at Stephen@PfeifferPhD.com or visit my website www.pfeifferphd.com.

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