Talking about gratitude at Thanksgiving sounds a bit hokey, it really isn’t.

These days are tough for parents.  The added stress of educating kids at home is affecting everybody.

Thanksgiving sounded like the perfect time to introduce you to the power of a daily gratitude practice and the emerging body of research that backs it up.

On a personal note, I will share that I stumbled upon the practice of keeping a daily gratitude journal during some of my darkest days.  It really helped.

Some days, I could only be thankful for the most basic things—that I had eyes to read with, hands to write with.  That I had access to clean water, and a roof over my head.

The daily focus on the things that were working in my life helped me to not be so wound up about my problems as well as to be open to solutions that began to appear around me.

The Power of Focus

Have you ever decided to buy a different kind of car from the one you have?  Say you drive a Toyota, and you’re longing for a Mustang.  You will begin to notice that you see mustangs everywhere.  You will be surprised because you never realized so many people drive Mustangs.

You might notice this if you’ve tried to help someone.  You make suggestion after suggestion, and they  reject every single one.   That’s what can happen when someone is so focused on their stress, anxiety, or depression.  They can’t even consider the possibility of improvement.

Whatever you focus on gets bigger.  So, if you focus on the problem, the problem gets bigger.  If you focus on what’s working with gratitude, that will increase as well.

I challenge you to test this for yourself.

Start looking for orange cars.  Count how many you see every day.  You will notice the number goes up as you look for them.  I guarantee it.

The same is true with gratitude. 

Why Bother Cultivating Gratitude?

In 2008, researchers looked at the effect that gratitude had on college student’s perception of their lives.  They found that the students who felt grateful had “higher levels of perceived social support, and lower levels of stress and depression. “

In 2019, researchers specifically worked with mothers of children with autism.   The divided 64 mothers into three groups:  two received the intervention and one was a control group.

Based on the pre & post well being assessments, the mothers “ …improved in well-being, parenting self-efficacy, positive maternal characteristics, and relationship quality…” even though their child’s behaviors hadn’t changed.

Who would want an improve their positive mothering, efficacy, and relationship quality?

Still another group that was researched were African American teens (12-14 years old) who were likely to engage in high risk behaviors.  Researchers found that, “greater life-orientation gratitude was the only variable significantly associated with abstinence from sexual intimacy, sexual intercourse, likelihood of engaging in sex during primary school, and abstinence from drug/alcohol use.”

The last study I want to share with you looked more closely at the relationship between gratitude, perceived stress, quality of life and how they impacted mental health.   Three hundred and fifteen Iranian soldiers were questioned about their attitudes in these various areas.  The results were pretty clear.  “Gratitude not only has direct effects on quality of life, but also has indirect effects through perceived stress and mental health.

There you have it:  from US college students, to mothers of children with autism, to African American teens, to Iranian soldiers, gratitude improves your quality of life and lowers your stress levels.

Ok, I’m In.  How Do I Increase My Gratitude

I’ll share my three favorite methods with you.

Method One:  A Gratitude Journal

I suggest that you get a notebook that you like.  It doesn’t have to be expensive.  It could be anything from a dollar store composition to a leather-bound notebook.  The only requirement is that you like the cover and find the paper enjoyable to write on.

Get a pen or pens that you like.

You could use an on-line journal format if you wanted.  But research has also found that words you handwrite have a greater impact on your memory over words that you type at a keyboard.

Choose a time either first thing in the morning or last thing at night.  If you choose first thing in the morning, the journaling can help set a more positive tone for your day.  If you choose right before bedtime, then you will be setting the tone for a better sleep.

Set a calendar reminder for the first 21 days.  It usually takes 21 days to form a new habit.

Spend 15 minutes writing down in words or drawing pictures of the things, experiences, qualities, people, pets, possessions which you truly appreciate.

It’s important to be honest.  Don’t list items that you wished you felt grateful about.  List only those things that make you smile when you think about them.

And you can list some of the same things day after day, though I encourage you to try to expand that list.

I’ve listed flowers, specific trees, songs, people, types of food, my senses, movies, my car, my bicycle, books, etc. that I appreciated.

I used this method with my own son when he was going through a time of extreme anxiety and stress.  The simple act of journaling was very effective in stopping the very real behaviors that had resulted in from the anxiety in addition to supporting him to have a more cheerful demeanor.  This allowed him to focus on his schoolwork and even approach obstacles in a more positive manner.

Method Two:  Write Thank You Letters

With emails being so common, thank you letters have become very precious.  Most people love to receive them.

Also, we’re heading into the holiday season when we usually send holiday cards.

I encourage you to choose your 10-20 most favorite people on your holiday card list and include a short note of appreciation of what their presence in your life has meant to you.

It doesn’t have to be long or eloquent, just sincere.

Method Three:  Pay It Forward

We’ve all experienced some form of kindness.

Someone picking up the check for a coffee or a meal or watching the kids, or listening to us vent.

Listen to those people who are crossing your path and see if there is someone who you could help in a small way.

You could even volunteer for a local food bank or a local homeless shelter.

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So choose one of these methods, go forth, and be more appreciative for what you do have in your life.

Don’t be like the person in the Joni Mitchell song:  “Don’ it always seem to go that you don’t know what you got ‘til it’s gone.”

Look around at what you have and appreciate it.  You will be surprised at what begins to unfold.

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