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Kathy Whelan

Posted on June 11, 2020

My husband received the 2020 SUCKS t-shirt from a friend who has a great sense of humor. We laughed out loud at its bold assertion of a thought everyone’s had: This year has been AWFUL!

Back in November 2017, I wrote a blog post on gratitude. Leading up to Thanksgiving, we always see articles on this subject, and I’d just read a story by a Jewish woman who had survived the Nazi occupation of Greece. This led to my reading about the benefits of practicing gratitude. Two years later, in another November post, I mentioned the gratitude journal I’d been keeping as a way to cultivate a good frame of mind for sleep.

At Thanksgiving time, it’s expected that we will be grateful if only for a few minutes before digging into our holiday meal. But what about times like now, when November seems light years away and it’s hard to think of the year in any positive terms at all?

Actually, this is a perfect time to be grateful. It can be difficult, no question. It’s easier to lapse into a negative mindset, taking the good things we’ve been given for granted and seeing only the bad, of which there are plenty. But it’s worth the effort.

Robert Emmons, Ph. D has been called “the world’s leading scientific expert on gratitude.” Reading his 2010 article Why Gratitude is Good, I learned that his studies have found numerous physical, psychological and social benefits to consistently practicing gratitude.

It’s striking to see how many of these benefits have particular importance right now. Physical benefits include a stronger immune system, lower blood pressure, better sleep and a greater inclination to exercise and generally take better care of health, all of which contribute significantly to lowering our vulnerability to COVID-19. Experiencing higher levels of positive emotions, more joy, pleasure, optimism and happiness can help us manage stress and reduce its harmful effects on our health. Feeling less lonely and isolated correlates strongly with better health, as scientific research has shown.

In case it seems self-indulgent, even callous, to find the good in situations that afflict others more than ourselves, rest assured this is not the case. According to Dr. Emmons, gratitude impels people to “pay it forward,” to do good for others just as good has been done for them.

So what is gratitude and how do we “practice” it? Dr. Emmons’ definition has two parts: 1) recognizing there are good things in the world, gifts and benefits we’ve received and 2) figuring out the sources of that goodness outside ourselves, whether it’s other people or a higher power. To him, gratitude involves a “humble dependence on others,” those who have helped us achieve the goodness in our lives.

To put the gratitude mindset into practice, Dr. Emmons recommends keeping a gratitude journal, something as simple as a weekly list of five things for which you’re grateful. At a time like now, I find it more helpful to list three things daily in my gratitude journal. If you don’t want to get that formal, you can simply practice counting your blessings each day. And expressing gratitude to others can be extremely beneficial to you as well as to the person you thank.

It’s not always easy, in my experience, to find three things to be grateful for. As bedtime approaches, I may become aware of characterizing the day as tough, stressful, even bad. At these times, I take a few deep breaths (note to self: I’m still breathing!) and dig deeper. Inevitably, I find a few bright spots in the day or at least some things that could have been worse than they were. And I always feel more optimistic and patient afterward, more apt to feel curiosity than dread about what lies ahead.

As for the t-shirt, it will forever (literally, because my husband never throws away a good t-shirt) be a reminder of 2020. I hope it will be a memento not only of our collective trauma but also of some very good things we are grateful for when we look back on this year.

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