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The Healing Power of Gratitude

10 months ago / by Sweta Vikram

America is big on labels and positioning messages. Sometimes, it creates a menace; other times, it can be a good thing. For those of us living in the United States, our brains are wired to feel a sense of gratitude around Thanksgiving. My two-year-old niece last year kept asking us (6 weeks prior to Thanksgiving), “What are you grateful for?” Every commercial or article that you read is focused on finding gratitude. When you think of Thanksgiving, you associate a gratitude list with it.

Let’s look at the mula of gratitude. Mula is a Sanskrit term meaning “root,” “base” or “foundation.” The noun gratitude comes from the Latin adjective gratus, meaning pleasing or thankful. The word has been used since at least the 14th century, yet in modern times the concept of gratitude became popularized through the PhD work of Robert A. Emmons, a leading gratitude researcher, with the term “appreciation.”

In his book “Appreciating What We Have,” Emmons describes gratitude as an emotion that can be cultivated through repeated acts of appreciating one’s current circumstances. In multiple studies on the link between gratitude and well-being, he found that gratitude effectively increases happiness and reduces depression.

According to an article in “Harvard Health,” “In positive psychology research, gratitude is strongly and consistently associated with greater happiness. Gratitude helps people feel more positive emotions, relish good experiences, improve their health, deal with adversity, and build strong relationships.” We know what gratitude means. We understand where it comes from. We have heard about the health benefits of feeling grateful. Gratitude transforms relationships, improves our mental well-being, helps us sleep better, enhances empathy, lowers aggression, and enhances physical health.

Gratitude is not a new concept. Honestly, we have all felt and expressed gratitude at one time or another. But how do you find gratefulness in difficult times? How do you find appreciation if you lost loved ones to the coronavirus and setting up the Thanksgiving table and looking at empty chairs triggers you? When my mom passed away suddenly, I would get upset when people would say, “You should be grateful she didn’t suffer.” Really? My mom died on her way to vacation; I never got to say a goodbye, and I should be grateful??

When I moved on from the anger phase of grieving, I understood that gratitude must be curated. You can’t wait for good things to happen in your life, be it a promotion, a raise, finding a partner, the birth of a child, or purchase of a new home or car, to feel grateful. It must become a daily practice through abhyasa, which is practice. I had to look for things that I was grateful for even in her untimely demise: Mom didn’t suffer, which was extremely important to her. She was surrounded by loved ones at her funeral, and we brought her ashes home in the car of my uncle, who was a judge. Mom would have loved the red siren and cops accompanying her asthis.

When the going gets tough, it might feel difficult to find moments of gratitude. I suspect most of us lose sight of what we have and focus on what’s not working. In doing so, we miss what we should appreciate. Don’t be hard on yourself. You have to bring the focus to the present moment – and now.

Here are 5 ways to appreciate what you have now:

  1. Spend time with loved ones: Meaningful relationships and nourishing conversations can make you feel grateful for the deep connections in life and give you a sense of belonging. I won’t recommend navigating your tomorrow with fear or a sense of impending loss. But the pandemic did teach us that life happens when we are busy planning it. People have lost loved ones to the virus. For me, being able to hug a dear friend or a cousin is replenishing. It reminds me of the good still in the world.
  2. Volunteer your time: Not just at Thanksgiving but even otherwise, serve others. Volunteer your time (or make it a family activity) at organizations that resonate with you. Volunteering can teach you about living in the moment and appreciating what you already have. It can also boost your self-esteem.
  3. Stop comparing yourself to others and stop competing: I like to remind my clients that the one way to lead a grateful and gratifying life is by putting on blinders and thinking of yourself as a horse in a race. You aren’t distracted by others. You don’t care about what others have or need or how they are performing. You are focused on you and doing your bit. When you have that clarity, you will identify moments in your life that you are truly grateful for.
  4. Start journaling: I don’t know about you, but when I want clarity, I write. When I want to get over my bad mood, I write. When I am trying to figure out the best path, I write. If you feel stuck and unable to experience gratitude, list what is working in your life. Doing so might shift your mindset and increase your contentment quotient. Several studies have shown that gratitude journaling can not only increase one’s happiness but also lower bodily inflammation.
  5. Appreciate your health: Not everyone is able to celebrate Thanksgiving – for myriad reasons. Be grateful if you can host such a gathering. Be appreciative if you can join a Thanksgiving celebration. Be joyous if you can eat without wondering about allergies and food triggers and other limiting health conditions. If nothing else, blow softly on your wrist. Your warm breath is proof you are alive and healthy. If that’s not worth being grateful for, what is?

“I am happy because I’m grateful. I choose to be grateful. That gratitude allows me to be happy.” ~ Will Arnett