Someone you know has just told you about the power of “practicing gratitude.” What’s your reaction? Are you interested? Curious? Or are you like me: slightly skeptical and irritated that anyone would think our pandemic-rattled minds have the bandwidth these days to add whatever it is that practicing gratitude entails? Maybe your feelings are mixed.
I decided that if there was room for gratitude this holiday season — even in the face of hardship for so many families — I would find it. Over the last few months, I went on a quest to learn more about being thankful. The verdict? Gratitude doesn’t just seem useful. It seems kind of awesome.
Yes, I began this quest with a skeptical view. After all, gratitude-as-self-improvement can seem a bit instrumentalist (i.e., “I’ll be grateful to you so that I can boost my own oxytocin levels”). And public calls for gratitude can seem designed to counteract work for social or political change (i.e., “Stop complaining and just be grateful”). In fact, in a recent “Psychology Today” article, psychologist Alfie Kohn blasts what he calls “generic gratitude” for both its capacity to conceal the very real ailments and hardships we may face and its implication that we ought to accept the societal status quo.
Caveats aside, couldn’t we all use a little of that sweet gratitude serotonin this year? And what about gratitude strengthening our connections to those around us at a time when our neighbors might as well be miles away? Could gratitude give us a reason to keep going when the going gets tougher than ever?
The short answer: yes. Here are three ways to practice gratitude — and actually mean it — as a parent in 2020.
Hey, you — thanks for that!
I call the first approach to gratitude a grateful-to approach. Even a vague definition of gratitude, like this one from “Harvard Health,” distinguishes feeling grateful for something in one’s life, and being grateful to the person or force who gave it to you:
“With gratitude, people acknowledge the goodness in their lives. In the process, people usually recognize that the source of that goodness lies at least partially outside themselves. As a result, gratitude also helps people connect to something larger than themselves.”
For those who already feel a connection to a higher power, the grateful-to approach might come fairly easily. Indeed, for observant members of my own faith, Judaism, there is said to be a blessing thanking our higher power for just about everything, from seeing a rainbow to going to the bathroom.
Yet, appreciating the contributions of other humans also counts as gratitude, and can go a long way toward securing interpersonal relationships. For instance, Arizona State University psychologist and gratitude researcher Frank Infurna and his wife, Lauren, consistently show gratitude for one another each day on their small Phoenix farm. During an interview for the university’s blog, he explained that “gratitude contributes to individuals’ feelings of belonging with others.” He notes that humans are social creatures, and that gratitude can build community.
Still, gratitude toward other humans can be hard. “People are complex, and they give in such confounding ways,” writes Jewish scholar Alan Morinis in his book, “Everyday Holiness.” “But we need to be ready to give thanks to a fellow human being, even if he or she has not done anything special for us. Why? Because the soul-trait of gratitude holds the key to opening the heart” and to connecting with humans and inanimate objects (“Thank you, soft bed!”) as well as with the divine.
Several years ago, I went to a meditation group session. Our guide told us to give thanks to the person toward whom we held the most resentment. I knew I had to direct this toward an old romantic foil I’d long called my arch-nemesis. At first, I was reluctant, but during a very long 10 minutes of meditation, I managed to find that I was grateful to her for the challenges she had set up for me. After that day, my feeling toward her went from deeply negative to shockingly neutral: she had given me the chance to grow into the woman I am today.
One thing you can do: Try letting members of your family know that you are grateful to them for something. Even if they can’t — or don’t — answer, you will be deepening the connection between you.
Consider the wonder of life itself
As I sat down to write this article, I came across a 2004 volume called “The Psychology of Gratitude.” In its foreword, philosopher Robert Solomon picks apart the difference between being grateful-to and being grateful-for. He finds that gratitude in the form of a relationship to another has its role, but that it is also about “seeing the bigger picture. … It is a matter of being aware of one’s whole life, being reflective in a way that most of us are not, most of the time.”
Therefore, this second, reflective approach entails using gratitude to really consider our lives — all the wonder and goodness they contain. My fiance takes this approach. As someone in recovery, he takes gratitude practices very seriously, so I recently asked him more about the topic. Cultivating appreciation and gratitude as a general frame of mind, he said, keeps him reaching toward healthy coping mechanisms — art, music, nature, relationships and community — instead of harmful ones. In turn, these things make gratitude more possible.
He also pointed out that in 2020, we are all in recovery — the pandemic and national political tension has likely touched us all. His suggestion? Ask yourself, “What are the permanent things we appreciate? We can cling to those to keep us grounded.”
Not long after my discussion with him, I got an alert that a book had arrived for me at my library branch. It was “Gratitude,” by Oliver Sacks, an adored neurologist and writer who died recently at age 81. In this collection of four essays penned shortly before his death, he, too, takes this reflective approach.
“I cannot pretend I am without fear,” Sacks writes. “But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written.”
His active engagement with the world around him left him with a broad sense of gratitude — something we all might hope to harness in the face of uncertainty. One thing you can do: Think about some activity that gives you space to reflect. Is it star-gazing? Uninterrupted family time? Uninterrupted non-family time? Journaling or meditating? Consider how you can integrate these things further into your weekly routine.
Don’t compare, relish
One day this summer, I was griping about gratitude during a phone conversation with my sister. On top of my other concerns with the concept, I told her, instructions to “be thankful” weren’t specific enough. I explained that I found myself consistently finishing thoughts like “I’m grateful for my family” with things like “… even though I’m being screwed over by Cox Internet” or “… because some people don’t have a great family to be thankful for.” These sentiments just seemed off, but “be thankful” didn’t give me enough to diagnose the problem.
My sister has consciously incorporated gratitude into her thought processes for years as she has worked to improve her mental health. And she agreed — this wasn’t what gratitude was about. These were comparisons, she said.
First, I was comparing what I appreciated in my life to what was wrong in my life. Second, I was comparing what I had to what others do not. Both of these comparisons led my thoughts away from that upon which I was trying to focus gratitude — my experience of my family.
The solution, my sister told me, could come out of mindfulness practices, in which one focuses on what one is sensing and feeling in the present, without judgment. I call this a mindfulness approach. For instance, I might use mindfulness methods to focus my gratitude on a particular family moment — say, sitting around the kitchen table painting together. Through mindfulness, I could simply relish that moment, think about how it made me feel, truly absorb every aspect of it.
I wouldn’t think about the argument I’d had with my daughter earlier that day, or how dumb my internet bill was, or how I pity those without this family closeness, or even how I’m going to deal with the next stretch of the pandemic. The point, in that moment of gratitude, wouldn’t be to solve problems. It would be to bolster my spirit. It would be to help me survive/support/fight again tomorrow. It would help me remember what it is I am working for.
One thing you can do: Set aside five minutes and pick one thing (or person) you are grateful for. Be as specific as possible: it could be something that happened yesterday or a food you love or friend you’ve spoken to recently. For a few minutes, turn this thing around in your head. In what ways has it improved your life? How great is it that you get to have this thing in your life? How can it inspire you tomorrow?
And from PBS Kids: Finding gratitude during difficult times