Gratitude. It’s a topic that becomes top of mind in November as we prepare to gather at our dinner tables and share a Thanksgiving meal with family and friends. For one month, we collectively slow down to celebrate all that we have to be grateful for. This year, as we’re enduring a global pandemic and the web of challenges that have come with it, the idea of reflecting on what we’re thankful for is even more important… and challenging.
It can be hard to embrace gratitude in the midst of loss. Many will have an empty seat at the table this year over the holidays. Family and traditions will be far away for others. Some have lost jobs this year, and some are carrying heavy financial burdens. Relationships have been strained, and some have been lost as well. Our kids have lost some of their connections to school, friends, and the activities they love. We’ve lost the personal connection that comes from meeting for a coffee or grabbing lunch with one another.
So, amid loss in our lives, is there a place for gratitude at the table?
Yes. Yes, there is.
In fact, we need to be more intentional now than ever to make room for it, and science backs it up.
A study by Steve Toepfer, associate professor in Human Development and Family Studies at Kent State University, speaks to this. In that research, 219 undergrad students filled out questions about their well-being and mental health four times, each about a week apart. The experimental group wrote a letter of gratitude between each visit, and the control group did not. When they would return for their visits, they would all fill out updated questionnaires.
As Toepfer explained, “The letter writers were instructed to write a letter of gratitude to anyone they wanted, however, the letter couldn’t be trivial and it couldn’t be a ‘thank you’ note for a gift or ‘thanks for saying hello to me this morning. The participants had to write about something that was important to them.”
He continued, “As they wrote, up to three letters, results showed increasing benefits. The more letter writing people did, the more they improved significantly on happiness and life satisfaction. The new and potentially important finding is that depressive symptoms decreased. By writing these letters – 15 to 20 minutes each, once a week for three weeks to different people – well-being increased significantly.”
Add to Toepfer’s findings some additional research by The Mindfulness Awareness Research Center of UCLA, which tells us that gratitude actually changes the brain’s neural structure. It makes us feel more content and happier by triggering “good” hormones and regulating our immune system. And, by igniting the reward center of our brains, it transforms the way we see ourselves, our circumstances, and the world we live in. At a chemical level, gratitude triggers neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin, which help us manage our stress responses, anxiety, and emotions.
I’ve said this before… I’m no researcher, scientist, or psychologist. I am, however, someone who has experienced the effects of gratitude in my life. When I am aware of all of the things I have to be thankful for, and I’m intentional to focus on those things, my outlook changes. When I focus on my struggles and challenges, my perspective changes as well. It’s simply a matter of intentionally controlling where I let my attention go, and not letting it wander around untethered, which is inevitably what drags me down into the darkest holes.
With all of this in mind, I want to challenge each of you with an exercise I introduced last November for my Depth Not Width followers. Make a list of 100 things that you are grateful for today. Include the big things and the little things, the significant things, and the seemingly insignificant things that bring you joy. Here’s a nudge to help get your wheels turning:
- Moments in your life that changed you
- Moments in life you’ve shared with others
- Family, friends, and relationships
- Your challenges and struggles (these make you stronger)
- Gifts you’re received
- Opportunities you have
- The future and all its possibilities
- Food, shelter, and health
- Maybe this year, there is even a challenge that you’re thankful for.
I created a simple worksheet that you can download here and use to create your gratitude list. Take this challenge… work on your own list, and push yourself to fill all 100 spaces. It may take hours, or days, or weeks. That’s okay. Take your time, but look deep for those things in your life that spark gratitude for you.
Here’s an additional challenge. Want to take this one step further? Write some of those gratitude letters to people and drop them in the mail, or email them. Let someone know the impact they’ve made in your life. They’ll feel good, and so will you as you’re training your brain to be gratitude strong.
Practicing gratitude isn’t just a November or Thanksgiving exercise, although those are perfect times to slow down and reflect. Instead, this is an every day, every season exercise you can do all year round to help keep your focus on the right things. Use the worksheet, make your list of 100 things you’re grateful for, and keep it somewhere visible so you can check in with it from time to time.
Want to keep digging into gratitude and the other elements of creating depth in your life? That’s the journey I’m on, and I’d love to have you join me! Subscribe here.