By: Susan Mahoney
As the year comes to a close, it can be tempting to focus on what we haven’t finished or accomplished in our businesses, professional and personal lives. However, this attitude can add to the end of year stress. Instead of traveling down that disappointing train of thought, how about we take some time this season to reflect differently about the year?
The holiday season is an excellent time to consciously practice gratitude and appreciation for the positive.
While this can sound trite and obvious, there are some proven benefits to a regular practice of gratitude to consider.
What is gratitude?
According to researchers at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, gratitude is a state of mind that happens when you affirm a good aspect of your life that comes from outside yourself, or when you notice and relish little pleasures.
Gratitude is not just a feeling outside your control that arrives willy-nilly. It’s more like a radio channel—you can choose to tune in at any time.
Recent neuroscience research shows that the practice of gratitude positively affects brain function. It can rewire our brain toward more consistently positive perspectives. Alternatively, automatic negative responses and thinking essentially lay down tracks in our mind that hard-wires us to respond to life circumstances negatively. A regular practice of gratitude (and other positive emotions such as forgiveness) empowers us to pause and react more consciously. This, in turn, helps us rewire our brain to respond positively rather than negatively.
In doing so, gratitude triggers positive feedback loops.
Taking time during the holidays to notice, contemplate, and express gratitude for people, experiences and other aspects of your life can make the holidays far more meaningful. Gratitude is a healing and supportive emotion, too. The practice of gratitude can help if you’re struggling with family drama, stressful travel, or disappointments.
What is a gratitude practice?
Gratitude isn’t just an emotion that happens. Instead, it is a virtue we can cultivate. Think of it as something you practice as you might meditation or yoga. The Yale researchers suggest the following steps to help you begin a gratitude practice.
- Pay attention. Notice all the positive aspects of your life you usually take for granted. Did you sleep well last night? Did someone at work or on the street treat you with courtesy? Have you caught a glimpse of the sky and had a moment of peace? It also involves acknowledging that difficult and painful moments are instructive, and you can be grateful for them as well. Directing our attention this way circumvents feelings of victimhood.
- Write it down. The act of writing helps you organize thoughts, accept experiences, and put them into context. Gratitude journaling may bring a new and redemptive frame of reference to difficult life situations. It also helps you create meaning when you place everyday experiences within a framework of gifts and gratefulness. By writing, you can magnify and expand on the sources of goodness in your life, and think about what resources you’ve gained from your experiences—even bad ones.
- Say thanks. Expressing gratitude completes the feeling of connection. Many people in your life have helped you in one way or another. Have you thanked them? Consider sending a letter to someone telling them what their actions meant to you, even if and especially if it happened long ago. As for responding to blessings that don’t come from people, the arts and many faith traditions offer countless ways to express gratitude. It may be as simple as a moment of deliberate reflection. Either way, the practice of gratitude may be the best holiday gift of all.
Here are a few questions to help you think about practicing gratitude:
- Looking back over the year, what are some projects, ideas, programs or initiatives that went well in your business and/or with your clients?
- Who has helped you this year?
- What are you most proud of?
- Who supported you?
- What were some surprises that led to positive outcomes in your business or personal life?
- What are some life lessons you experienced this year, both positive and negative?
What are the benefits of gratitude?
More than any other personality trait, gratitude is strongly linked to mental health and life satisfaction. Grateful people experience more joy, love, and enthusiasm, and they enjoy protection from destructive emotions like envy, greed, and bitterness. It can give you a sincere and steadfast trust that goodness exists, even in the face of uncertainty or suffering.
In my leadership development work, building resilient leaders is a current topic.
Research shows that people who regularly practice gratitude are more resilient, better managers, make better decisions, better networkers, and have improved productivity.
Gratitude is a warm and uplifting way to feel, and it benefits the body. People who experience gratitude cope better with stress, recover more quickly from illness, and enjoy more robust physical health, including lower blood pressure and better immune function. It also strengthens your bonds with other people. Grateful people are more helpful, outgoing, optimistic, and trustworthy.
The holiday season is an excellent time to think about gifts, and not just the paper-wrapped kind. Taking time during the holidays to notice, contemplate, and express gratitude for the people, events, and aspects in your life can make your holidays far more meaningful. The practice of gratitude may be the best holiday gift of all.