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Lifestyles

Extend holiday gratitude all year round

Posted December 3, 2016

Reciting a polite “thank you” is one of the first social expectations that parents teach their children. We all know how to answer the question, “What do you say?” when an adult raises an eyebrow and waits for that thankful response. However, the ability to deliver a well-timed and rehearsed “thank you” is not the same as exhibiting genuine gratitude.

Major events, such as the holiday season, may turn our focus to joy, peace and time with loved ones, but they can also bring stress, disappointment and distraction. With all the expectations and overcrowded schedules at this time of year, it can be easy to lose sight of the qualities that bring us the most happiness, including gratitude.

How can we move past being thankful to being truly grateful?

Decades of research into positive psychology teach us what characteristics, habits and tendencies are shared by the world’s happiest people. Almost without fail, gratitude makes it into the top lists, and studies have consistently found that people who score high on gratitude have increased energy, optimism, determination, connectedness to others and even better quality of sleep.

Richard Emmons, Ph.D., has made a career of studying the effects of gratitude through his work at UC Davis. He has found that people with a daily gratitude practice show evidence of higher quality of life in many areas than a control group of people who don’t. However, in several of his studies, he also noted that a gratitude intervention didn’t do anything to reduce the amount of unpleasant emotions scored by either group. In other words, it may be that increasing your expressions of gratitude may improve your quality of life, even when your life itself doesn’t improve.

Thanksgiving is, of course, a time to pause and give thanks for all of the things we enjoy in life. Many families have the tradition of waiting around the dinner table for each person to list one thing they are grateful for at the annual feast. However, acknowledging thankfulness just one day a year is not enough to build a habit of gratitude that will improve so many areas of your life.

Much of the research on gratitude’s powerful effects centers around a daily habit or practice of gratitude. The more we appreciate the small things around us, the more we will start to look for things to be grateful for. Over time, through cultivating a gratitude practice, we begin to focus on the positive and de-emphasize the negative. We start to notice how much we have, rather than how much we lack. By embracing a daily routine of gratitude, we train our thoughts to embrace abundance and can better tolerate the negatives of daily irritations and annoyances.

Remember, the key is to get into a routine of gratitude and to practice recording and expressing gratitude for the long-term, rather than just one day a year. The best way to do this is a gratitude journal. Studies show that people who keep gratitude journals also take better care of their health, experience less physical pain, and even achieve more goals. Here are some creative ways you can keep a gratitude journal and harness the power of gratitude for a more positive life:

  • A simple gratitude list, added to daily, can be kept on a notepad or index card.

  • A nightly gratitude check-in, such as at the dinner table, can encourage family members to focus on building this important skill.

  • A 5-year diary, providing space for only a few lines per day, provides a concise and approachable format for something as simple as a daily gratitude note.

  • Consider using a camera to take a photo of something that you are grateful for every day. You could even post these photos to a social media account dedicated to your gratitude practice.

  • Make a gratitude scrapbook or “smashbook” by keeping tickets, receipts, photos, quotes and other daily reminders of your gratitude.

However you do it, make your gratitude journal something simple enough that you can do every day but rich enough that you train yourself to look for the blessings, both large and small, that daily life offers to all of us.

<a href='http://malissamorrell.com' target='_blank'>Malissa Morrell</a> is a board-certified art therapist and the founder of <a href='http://www.thetherapy.studio' target='_blank'>The Therapy Studio</a> in Salt Lake City, Utah.

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