“Enjoy the little things, for one day you may look back and realize they were the big things.” –Robert Brault
For many of us, December can be a stressful time of year because of the financial and time pressures that come with decorating, entertaining, and exchanging gifts. One way to shift the focus off of consumerism and redirect our attention towards matters of the heart is to practice gratitude. While everyone has experienced feelings of gratitude at various times in their life, we usually consider such emotions as fleeting and spontaneous. But the truth is that we can intentionally practice exercises which intensify feelings of joy and appreciation and strengthen the bonds we feel with our loved ones and our community.
In fact, in more recent years the benefits of gratitude have been researched extensively within the field of positive psychology. According to Robert Emmons, the world’s leading expert on gratitude, gratitude has two components. The first is an “affirmation of goodness.” We acknowledge that there are good things in the world which we have received. We do not deny or ignore that there are problems and suffering in our lives or the world at large, yet when we view life from a larger perspective, gratitude inspires us to take note of the positive aspects of our lives. The second part of gratitude involves identifying the source of our blessings. “We recognize the source of this goodness as being outside of ourselves.” That is, we take the time to acknowledge that other people have helped us in numerous ways that have contributed to “the goodness in our lives.” Rather than focusing on those things for which we feel proud, we are drawing our attention to all of the gifts we have received in life, those which can be attributed to other people or higher powers.
Because gratitude encourages us to focus our attention on the blessings we’ve been given, instead of that which we feel we have achieved or earned independently of others, it is a “relationship-strengthening emotion.” It highlights the many ways we have been “supported and affirmed by others” (Emmons 2010). This in turn generates feelings of good will and appreciation for the people in our lives, which naturally serves to strengthen our social connections.
At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us. -Albert Schweitzer
And what better time to begin generating feelings of good will towards others and gratitude for our blessings than during the holiday season?
To create powerful feelings of joy and a greater sense of closeness with your friends and family this holiday (without spending a dime), try a gratitude visit. The first part of this exercise entails writing a letter to anyone who has helped you in life but whom you feel you have not properly thanked. It could be a relative, a friend, a teacher, counselor, or mentor. The second part involves scheduling a time to visit this person and read the letter aloud to them. ‘The remarkable thing,’ says [University of Pennsylvania psychologist Martin] Seligman, ‘is that people who do this just once are measurably happier and less depressed a month later’” (Wallis 2005).
The benefits of the gratitude visit exercise are quite powerful; however, they disappear after three months. Thus for less intense but longer lasting results, I recommend also committing to the three blessings exercise, which involves writing a daily journal entry about three things that went well that day and why. Numerous studies have shown that this exercise makes people “less depressed and happier three months later and six months later” (Seligman qtd. in Wallis 2005).
To reflect on how rich your life already is, try setting aside some time this December to make a few gratitude visits. And if you’re looking for an easy yet powerful New Year’s Resolution, keeping a journal of three blessings may be just what you need to ring in the new year with powerful feelings of joy and interconnectedness.
- by Carolina Moxley, CYF Liaison Trainer
Emmons, Robert. “Why Gratitude Is Good.” November 16, 2010.http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/why_gratitude_is_good
Wallis, Claudia. “The New Science of Happiness.” January 9, 2005. http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1015832-4,00.html