No-Pressure Holidays: How Gratitude Can Help In Real Ways

Love, Family

How to honestly show gratitude, reaping its relationship and (surprise!) even health benefits.

Do you sometimes feel under pressure to feel grateful? With Thanksgiving around the corner, gratitude is front and center. Yet, the positivity of gratitude might be hard to come by with so much to do around the holidays, and so many mixed emotions intertwined. What are the reasons to cultivate happiness and gratitude? What are the possible drawbacks toward trying to muster gratitude when it just doesn't feel right? Below I discuss the ins and outs of gratitude, especially in light of the holiday season.

The Pros

First and foremost, the data on gratitude and its positive effects on happiness and relationships just keeps pouring in. Gratitude figures prominently as one of the key ways we can boost our happiness and improve our satisfaction in relationships. It's even proven to be better for your health.

Gratitude lower stress levels, heightens immunity, and is associated with better self-care, such as good nutrition or routine exercise. Gratitude can even be an antidote to anger and frustration, and those who know this—either intuitively, or via training—will often implement an "attitude of gratitude" in order to maintain emotional and mental balance with an overall positive approach.

The Most Effective Practice of Gratitude ...

Focusing on aspects of your life for which you truly feel grateful. Even in the most dire of circumstances, there is space for gratitude, but it's not quite what you think. The things we're thankful for can be small or large, but they need to be authentic, varied, and somewhat infrequent.

Sonja Lyubomirsky, a prominent gratitude researcher, has found that people who feel gratitude once a week are happier than the people who feel and express gratitude daily. Gratitude, like much in life, is more effective when its quality trumps its quantity. By pinpointing our gratitude in a real way, we reap its benefits.

A Fresh Angle

One way gratitude can be pinpointed is when times are particularly good, or particularly hard, in that it helps us resist taking things for granted by resetting our tendency to adapt. Gratitude helps us keep a more balanced perspective, offsetting our natural accommodation process, and keeping our values at the top of our mind. This balanced perspective is helpful during times of prosperity, and also during times of stress and hardship. 

Scientifically speaking, reaching a plateau after success is equated with not having a feel-good dopamine rush anymore. Once that feel-good high is gone, we often start to get complacent, losing sight of appreciating what we have. Conversely, when times are hard, we can cash in on gratitude to keep things in perspective. In fact, historians assert that the Thanksgiving holiday was established as both a morale boost to weary settlers, as well as a control against complacency.

By making gratitude a regular part of our lives, we cultivate a different experience than the negativity about the situation. Gratitude doesn't mean ignoring what's hard—it means coming at the situation from a new angle in order to see more possibility for understanding, and ultimately for taking action for change.

Gratitude and Relationships

Gratitude can have a significant impact in our relationships. Since we have more face time with loved ones over the holidays, focusing on our gratitude for what we love about our family members can enhance our relationships (and keep family feuds at bay at the very least). Gratitude is a shot in the arm for the impetus to be happy with our partners, children, parents, siblings, and other relatives. Nurturing gratitude can keep us out of a negative spiral downward, an all-too-common scenario during holiday family gatherings.

Sara Algoe is well known for her research on gratitude and romantic relationships.  She concluded that the more grateful people are about their partners, the more likely they are to stay in the relationship. Likewise, exhibiting gratitude in the workplace also has a positive effect. In a University of Pennsylvania Wharton School of Business study, psychologists found that a supervisor's "thank you" gave employees, "a strong sense of both self-worth and self-efficacy," and that the "expression of gratitude has a spillover effect: Individuals become more trusting with each other, and more likely to help each other out."

Caveat: Beware of Using Gratitude the Wrong Way

Gratitude is meant to bolster good relationships. Be aware, therefore, that gratitude is not an antidote for enduring harm in your life. For anyone with an abusive or psychologically unstable partner or employer, showing gratitude for what might be positive in the relationship is not going to change the routine emotional damage. Indeed, conveying gratitude in these situations could inadvertently encourage more hurtful behavior.

In these cases, forcing feelings of positivity is missing the point—feelings of distress and anxiety should be honored for the needed change they likely signal. Gratitude in such instances can be used to highlight areas of internal strength and courage that can help you leave an unhealthy relationship. 

Beyond The Theory: Implementing Gratitude

To be sure, all of this talk about gratitude can be good in theory. But what about when you're actually sitting down to dinner, and grandpa is all aghast that the turkey isn't basted right, your teenager keeps sneaking impolite gazes at his 'Whatsapp' under the table, your aunt just elbowed you to pass the wine a third time, and your spouse has strategically escaped for what feels like a very extensive tour of the new outdoor patio? Can you really be grateful in such mayhem? Yes. But it helps if you've started your gratitude focus way before sitting down to the meal.

Gratitude Takes Practice

In order to have a sweeping effect in your life, gratitude takes practice. The most renowned gratitude researcher, Robert Emmons, author of Thanks! How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier (Houghton Mifflin, 2007) concluded that gratitude is a choice. This choice can be encouraged daily, as Emmons recommends, or less frequently as others have suggested. The point is to begin a practice that can become a habit that in turn becomes a lifestyle attitude (again, the so-called "attitude of gratitude"). In doing so, says Emmons, not only do we feel more positive, the health benefits also kick in as a result.

If we think of gratitude as an attitude, we're less likely to be affected by other people's annoyances, which can come to a head during a family gathering. When we're grateful as a matter of course, the nitty-gritty is more likely to just roll off of us. We feel more balance, and are thus better positioned to handle the stresses of life.

When gratitude is practiced as a priority in our lives, research shows that healthy relationships as well as better physical health ensue. Again though, gratitude needs to be authentic and felt. So when you gather with family for holidays, be sure to focus fully on what you're truly grateful for. This focus on your feelings of gratitude will help balance your perspective in the short term, and over time allow the benefits of gratitude to thus take hold in your health and your relationships in a real way.

To learn more about Dr. Clark and the work that she does, please visit www.AliciaClarkPsyD.com, follow her on Twitter (@DrAliciaClark), or like her on Facebook.