The holidays are the best time of year. A time for joy, celebration, and, naturally, full hearted gratitude. We all want to be grateful, but amid the turmoil in the world and our daily lives it can sometimes be hard to make the time. So, I want to take a minute to explore the full benefits of gratitude.
I love the focus on reflection and giving thanks during this time of year, but sometimes the messaging around holiday gratitude can feel like too much. Gratitude is important — researchers are showing it might even actually improve your health — but it’s not easy to deal with the pressure of cramming in a year’s worth of appreciation during a month when you’re endlessly shopping, hopping between holiday parties, and trying to keep your normal life afloat.
That’s why one of the things I’m grateful for this year is the emerging science that shows that the positive benefits of gratitude come largely from long-term practice. In other words, we don’t have to hurry up and be grateful right now just because it’s the holidays. Instead, we can commit to a little bit of gratitude all year long and enjoy the tangible health benefits.
Knowing the potential benefits, I wanted to give “gratitude practice” a try. I’m currently doing two things: a weekly journal to reflect on my own life and periodic entries in notebooks I keep for my kids. These are not my first attempts at something like this.
Like many people, I started journaling when I was growing up, but the habit didn’t stick. I was on again, off again with my notebook until around 2018 when I was in the darkest time of my life dealing with health and infertility struggles. I felt very lost, so lost that when people asked me how I was doing I felt like I was going to break down in tears. I was not doing well. Putting pen to paper helped me figure out what I was feeling and get comfortable with the thoughts I was having. Sometimes they were dark thoughts like feeling jealous of my friends who were announcing their pregnancies; sometimes they were more positive ones like how we killed it at our first outdoor fashion show at Cynthia Rowley. While these entries didn’t take the typical form of gratitude that we often think of — there were no “3 things I’m grateful for today” lists — they helped me sit more comfortably with the often uncomfortable feelings I was having and to appreciate what I was going through.
I have never been perfect at this practice. The only way my weekly date with my gratitude journal has a prayer of happening is that I set a calendar alert to remind myself. Even then, I periodically hit snooze...sometimes for a while. Some days I sit down and write a very quick page or a few notes on my phone. Others, I’m on a roll and happily scribble on for five or six. The notebooks I keep for my kids were born out of an idea to develop a connection with my children during my pregnancy. But when my babies were born and I realized I had only a few entries for each, I decided to roll with it and turn them into childhood books documenting what I’m currently thankful for in their lives. (I am fully prepared to one day hear, “Wow, mom, you were really freaking lame.”) Even in my early days of journaling when the entries about my health struggles were dark and highlighted things about myself that I didn’t like, I have always felt better after doing it.
There is a reason journaling makes me feel this way. Studies have shown that reflection and gratitude can actually reduce the stress hormone, cortisol, which in turn lessens depression and anxiety. It can improve your sleep and make you feel happier. There is even some indication that its benefits might go beyond mental health and into things like reducing pain, improving heart health, and boosting your immune system, though more research needs to be done in these areas.
I’m not sure I’ll maintain the same exact practice forever, but I will always do some form of gratitude. As the science is showing, it has helped me check in with myself, collect my thoughts, sleep more soundly, and accept wherever I happen to be in my life right now. I feel that a healthy part of gratitude is recognizing difficulties as well. By accepting the hard things, I’ve been able to feel more appreciative, calm, and complete. They are feelings I definitely want to stick with.