We’re reaching the end of what has been, for many, an especially difficult year. I don’t have to tell you that the last several months have been full of totally unexpected struggles and complications as a result of the global pandemic. We’ve all been affected in some way, whether emotionally, financially, physically (or all of the above). But now, as we finish get ready to say farewell to 2020, we are also entering the holiday season: a time of gratitude, reflection and hope. I think that many of us are looking forward to the holidays, and the warmth and good feelings that come with them.
Still, it can be hard to find those feelings of gratitude – even though you may want to – when you’ve been grieving losses and living under a cloud of stress. Though I feel very fortunate to have not been as impacted by the pandemic as I know many others have, there have been other years in my life when personal loss has cast a shadow over the holidays, and the tips I’m sharing today are things that have helped me – and other friends of mine- reconnect with a sense of gratitude in the midst of difficult times. If you are looking for some ways to shift your perspective as we wrap up 2020 – and move forward into a brand new year – then I hope these 5 tips for finding gratitude will be helpful to you.
A little disclaimer: Please note that I am not promoting “fake happy” or a plastered on “attitude of gratitude.” I’m personally a very big believer in being real with yourself about what you’re experiencing and feeling. In other words, if you are sad or down about something in particular, I think it’s important to be able to say to yourself, “I am upset about _______, and it’s okay for me to feel that way,” while also looking for things in your life to be grateful for. I’d also like to note that – if you are here because you are struggling with depression and/or anxiety that has been constant – l hope you’ll reach out to a friend, family member or counselor who can be there for you.
1. Write Down/Verbalize the Things You are Grateful For
Okay, so this is probably the first thing you expected to see on this list, but that’s for good reason! When you start looking for things to be grateful for, and actually make a habit of pointing them out to yourself, it re-wires your brain to cultivate “an attitude of gratitude” (AKA the Pollyanna effect). Some people like to keep a special journal that they use to write down a certain number of things they are grateful for, each day. It doesn’t have to be a big number of items, or even big things in general. In fact, it’s the little things that sometimes add the most sweetness to life, if you can learn to stop and appreciate them.
Snuggling up with your family to watch a movie, reading a book with your children, taking a walk with a friend, or having a quiet time with your cup of coffee in the morning –these are valuable moments in life that we can sometimes fail to appreciate unless we try to be aware of them. I’m a Christian, and one way that I like to cultivate this habit is thanking God for specific things when I pray (as I teach my daughter to pray, this is something I am trying to help her cultivate, as well). Whether you keep a gratitude journal, commit to a regular prayer time, or try to make a habit of verbalizing a certain number of things you are grateful for everyday (or all three), making a habit of noting the good, small things in your life can make a big difference in how you see the world.
2. Create New Traditions to Look Forward To
When my husband and I were dating, there was a period of about a year and a half when our relationship was long-distance. It was hard, and every goodbye seemed to get harder. However, one thing that made it easier was always having our next meeting already planned in the calendar before we ever said goodbye. It didn’t make it easy, but the hope of having that next meeting in mind helped both of us to move forward in our day-to-day lives while also maintaining a long distance relationship. That experience was difficult, but it made us both more grateful for the time that we had together (and, once we were able to live in the same place and get married, our long-distance experience made us more grateful for that, too.)
More recently, when the pandemic put a damper on all of our travel plans for the year (as I know it has for many of you), my family created some new weekly traditions that we could look forward to. We started doing family art nights more regularly, and we began making more of an “event” out of family movie nights (we even bought a popcorn maker and seasonings). Yes, we were still (very) bummed to have to cancel a long anticipated vacation, but having these new, smaller traditions to look forward to definitely helped and has given us many new memories to be grateful for.
My point in all of this? Hope is a big part of gratitude. You need things to look forward to and be grateful for in your future, as well as the present. If you’re reading this, maybe part of what you’re sad about is that some of your favorite holiday traditions just aren’t going to work out this year. That’s totally understandable, but I’d also encourage you to come up with a new tradition that you can look forward to, and be grateful for, this year.
3. Take a Moment to Breathe (and Re-prioritize)
The phrase, “taking a moment to breath,” can having many meanings. However, in the case of growing gratitude, more than one of them apply. For example, if you’re feeling overwhelmed with life, stress, or negative feelings, taking (literally) a few minutes to simply breathe mindfully may actually help you step away from your mess long enough to find a new perspective. Sometimes, finding more gratitude in your heart can really come from something as simple as a quick breathing activity.
But “taking a breather” can imply bigger changes, too. Sometimes it can mean taking a break from something–stepping away from one thing purposely, in order to focus on something else. I think that this meaning can be extremely helpful for anyone struggling to cultivate a grateful heart, particularly in these ever-changing times. Many people this year (maybe you are one of them) experienced a major shift in daily responsibilities: jobs furloughed (or permanently lost), kids now at home more often, etc. For example, maybe you suddenly find yourself displaced from a previous role, while now filling the (perhaps unexpected) role of “homeschooling parent.”
It can be unsettling when your daily responsibilities are get shifted so suddenly. Sometimes, it can even leave you feeling strangely guilty, or like you are wasting your time, simply because life does not look how it did before, or how you expected it to. When things feel that way, consider this suggestion to “take a moment to breathe,” with this meaning: allow yourself to take a break from any previous expectations, so that you can enjoy your life at this moment. Savor the present, even if it’s not what you were in the middle of anticipating before life caught you off guard. Take a break from that previous image, and be here, now. Your life is precious: far too precious to spend your days feeling like you’re waiting around or wasting time. Take a moment to breathe and refocus on current priorities. It may help you to feel more grateful for each day.
4. Stop the Scroll-and-Compare-Syndrome
The comparison game can be a real challenge to feeling grateful, particularly when our iPhones act as magic mirrors to the outside world. I’m guilty of social media comparison: 100%. And you know what? Too much scrolling and comparing (as addicted as I can be to it) never makes me happy or pleasant. In fact, in kind of makes me feel like a whiny brat inside! Someone else is always updating their kitchen for fun, while things around my house are constantly falling apart. Someone else is always losing weight doing the same diet that never worked for me. Someone always looks gorgeous when I feel like a mess. That family goes on all the cool vacations, and we haven’t been able to travel. Ect. Ect. Ect.
I’m just being real with you guys. And you know what else I’m going to say, right? This scrolling and comparing situation is not healthy, nor is it conducive to having a grateful heart.
Not only is Scroll-and-Compare-Syndrome unhealthy, it’s also not based on anything real. Social media is a magic mirror to the outside world, but it’s one with a very limited perspective. The other day I did an experiment with my own social media page; I scrolled through my Instagram and tried to imagine what other people see. You know what I realized? They see me with make-up on, at pre-approved angles. They see my daughter always smiling or doing something cool. They see the beautiful property where I live, not the sometimes stressful symptoms of living in a very old home.
Often, we document only our favorite things on our virtual pages, and we leave the stress and unpleasantness behind. I was just thinking (and I’m talking to myself as much as anyone else), wouldn’t it be nice if we could snapshot and save our favorite moments of each day to look at–just for ourselves, instead of comparing our stresses to everyone else’s “best-moment feeds”?
5. Learn from Failure and/or Loss
One thing that we homeschooling moms can usually agree on is that we want our kids to learn from life, right? And if something goes wrong, or if it’s a Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day? Well, there are lessons to learn from that too.
For some reason, though, it can be hard to have this same kind of grace with yourself as a “grown-up.” After all, are grown ups “allowed” to make mistakes, or have things work out differently than how they planned? Ha! We both know the answer is, “Of course we make mistakes.” Also, sometimes we are going along, sincerely doing our very best, and life pulls the carpet out from under our feet anyway! But we still can – and still should- find things that we can learn and be grateful for, even (especially) in the messes that leave us humbled.
If this season in life has been really rough for you, and you are struggling to find external things to be grateful for, then perhaps it will be more helpful to search for the internal things you can be grateful for.
How did you grow? What did you learn?
Maybe you’ve found a healthy way to cope with stress this year, like taking time to journal, pray, or exercise. Maybe you’ve learned that you are stronger and more flexible than you ever knew before. Maybe you’ve learned how to recognize the people in your life that you can trust or count on (or those that you can’t). Maybe you’ve found more valuable priorities from realizing what you can do without ( and what you can’t.) This kind of wisdom and insight is infinitely valuable, and you simply can’t find it when life goes smoothly. So, as you reflect back on times of recent struggle, remember to be grateful for those things that only you can see. Write them down, and keep them close. It’s an unexpected sort of gratitude, but it’s beautiful in it’s own way.
I hope that these tips help you to find gratitude and joy in your heart in the midst of the holiday season. It’s been a strange year for the world, and I know that many of us have learned a lot of things we did not expect to. If you have more tips for cultivating gratitude that you’d like to share with other readers, I hope that you’ll drop them in the comments below for all of us to read! Wishing you peace and joy.