The holiday season is supposed to be a joyful time – reflecting on the year’s end, coming together with loved ones, and looking forward to a new year together. But it can also be a challenging time of year: an endless to-do list at home, the year-end crunch at work, preparations for family events, not to mention personal stresses and historical and political trauma.

While honoring those realities, I want to focus on the concept behind the holiday: Gratitude.

This focus is not to ignore or neglect anything, but to focus our energy on what will sustain our relationships and ourselves.

Gratitude is an intentional process of not only recognizing that something good is happening or that there is good in the world, but also that this good is outside of ourselves and connected to those around us. Being grateful can be a specific instance (i.e. a “Thank You” note for a gift) or an overall perspective on life. This isn’t about overlooking or disregarding negativity, trauma, or just plain ol’ bad luck. It is about cultivating a more balanced way of viewing the world.

Our bodies thrive with gratitude

Studies have found a positive association between intentionally practicing gratitude and physical health and well-being. Researchers found individuals who practice gratitude (for example, someone who kept a daily gratitude journal for one month) had lower blood pressure, reported regular physical activity, and increased levels of quality sleep.

Our beings thrive with gratitude

In additional to the physical benefits, gratitude positively affects our mental health. Studies uncovered an association between gratitude and its influence in strengthening and initiating positive relationships and healthy interpersonal connections. For example, you meet a new friend who makes sure to text you for your birthday. You reply with a “Thanks so much!  That’s really thoughtful of you.” That simple message increases their likelihood of reaching out to you in the future, as well as them reporting more positive qualities about you to others. Gratitude may even mitigate symptoms of post-traumatic stress and increase self-esteem. Even work environments and organizational practice can benefit from a little gratitude; researchers found when managers expressed gratitude, staff reported increased productivity and commitment to assigned tasks.

Building a gratitude practice

“How does that all work just from being grateful?” you might be asking. Well, gratitude shifts our perspective on a situation and increases feelings of happiness. When we feel happier we approach conflict or challenges differently, and overall happiness can lower stress hormones in our bodies and brain. 

Ways to cultivate gratitude in your everyday life:

  • Send a “Thank You” note or card. Many people believe these are from a bygone era, but we can get creative in expressing our gratitude! Maybe send your thanks electronically or through social media. It also doesn’t have to be for something recent or tangible – you can send a short note or email to someone who has been there for you in the past or always brings a smile to your face.
  • Keep a Gratitude Journal. Jotting down just a few things each day can help you shift your outlook and perspective on things.  You could even keep a running list in your phone or smart device! A gratitude journal is also a great family activity. Each day you can have the children in your life and/or you partner take some time to focus on what they appreciate about that day.
  • Take some time to move around your neighborhood and observe. Going for a walk, drive, or journey outside can have a profound effect on your mood and brain. Can you welcome the changing seasons (even if you have to bundle up or take shade from the sun)?     

Gratitude is a way to challenge social norms of one-upsmanship, aggression, and disconnection. It helps us grow our ability to respond empathically to the people around us. Hopefully, we can take some time over the next few weeks to check in with ourselves and explore ways gratitude can enrich our lives.

Liz Zadnik is NJCASA’s Statewide Capacity Manager and is committed to supporting individual wellness and activist well-being in the sexual violence prevention movement.  Her work focuses on social change and community-based strategies for addressing and reducing rates of sexual violence.