In the holiday season, it’s easy to get caught up in the pressures of gift buying, parties and family gatherings yet forget about that old Thanksgiving stalwart — gratitude. But thankfulness may be the best gift you can give yourself and others this time of year.
“The holidays can be a really challenging time,” says Asheville psychologist Deborah Barnett. “Depression tends to increase in the population during the holidays, either because we’re comparing ourselves to the smiley faces in the TV ads or what we imagine other people are doing out there,” she says.
“It’s easy to end up focusing on what’s not working and how things are not as good as they should be. Gratitude is really helpful because it helps us shift from the focus on what’s lacking to what is working. … That shift in perspective is really important.”
Spending a few minutes a day focused on gratitude can have profound effects. University of California-Davis gratitude researcher Robert Emmons found that people who write in a gratitude journal for just three weeks improved their physical, psychological and social health; they have stronger immune systems, are less bothered by aches and pains, experience more joy and pleasure, are less lonely and isolated; and tend to be more helpful, generous and compassionate.
“I like to start my day with focusing on all of the things that are gifts in my life, all of the things that are going well,” because it is easy for us to focus on the negative, says Cathy Holt, owner of HeartSpeak in Asheville and teacher of The Connection Practice, which helps people enhance their social-emotional skills, empathy and insight. Holt says she starts every day with a practice of gratitude. “We have Velcro for the negative, Teflon for the positive, but by focusing our attention on gratitude and what’s going well, we can begin to see the world through that lens instead.”
Even during times of great difficulty, there is something to be grateful for, says Holt, who has a master’s degree in public health and also offers mediation services. “There may be times we have to search in order to get to the point of gratitude, because what is right in front of us doesn’t look like anything that we want,” she says. During those times we can appreciate being safe, the ability to manage situations as they arise and gratitude for the challenges that help us to grow, she says.
Religious and spiritual leaders see another layer to gratitude, one that is central to faith.
Rabbi Justin Goldstein of Beth Israel Congregation in Asheville believes gratitude is the foundation of the Jewish tradition. “The Hebrew word for a Jewish individual is yehudi, which literally means one who gives thanks or expresses gratitude,” he says. Gratitude “is a core component to understanding what it means to live Jewish-ly.”
To Goldstein the miracle of Hanukkah — where a very small amount of oil stayed lit for eight days — isn’t that the oil lasted so long but that the person who found the small amount of oil lit the lamp anyway, signifying “the intense spirit humans have to overcome the real challenges in life.”
The Rev. Barbara Waterhouse, co-founding senior minister at the Center for Spiritual Living, believes that changing our thoughts can be immensely powerful. “At the Center for Spiritual Living, we believe we are creating our reality,” she says. “Whatever we focus upon, whatever we dwell on, we create. So if we focus on gratitude, we create more of that.
“It’s not airy fairy stuff; this for me is very selfish,” she says. “My life is better when I’m grateful. I feel better, I’m happier, I have more money … and I’m healthier. I create a better life by being grateful than what I ever could have being judgmental, critical and resentful.”
“Gratitude is not helpful; it is essential,” says the Rev. Barbara Petersen, director of the Center for Art and Spirit at St. George’s and former interim priest-in-charge at St. George’s Episcopal Church. “Religiously speaking, Episcopal worship is centered around communion, the Holy Eucharist, and the very word ‘eucharist’ in Greek means thanksgiving. So the center of our spiritual life in the Episcopal tradition is giving thanks,” she says.
Petersen tells a story of her days on a Nebraska farm. “We were putting up hay, and my husband had to be out of town,” she says. Though she knew how to run the tractor and baler, she didn’t know how to fix them if they broke down. As she drove the tractor that day, she began complaining to herself about the possibility of the machines breaking, as well a number of other things that were weighing on her. “Then I remembered the words of St. Paul, [who] says something like ‘In all things give thanks.’”
No sooner did she start to think of these words than the baler broke down, she says with a laugh.
But as Petersen sat on the tractor and felt helpless, she started to give thanks for what she saw around her — the swallows that gathered around the baler to eat the insects stirred up from the haying, the sun shining and “the beauty of every little blade of grass,” she says.
“I was giving thanks for all those little things, in the spirit of St. Paul,” she continues, “when a neighbor came by and saw I was dead in the water in the middle of the field.”
The neighbor, a farmer himself, offered to fix the baler. Then some friends showed up and helped her load the hay and put it in the barn. “It felt to me that as soon as I turned from complaining and focusing on my lack to becoming grateful for every little thing, down to the breath I was taking, the energy started to flow in an abundant way.
“Jesus said the kingdom of God is here and now, or the kingdom of God is within you. To me that is how creation works,” says Petersen. “If you’re in that flow, then you are receiving and giving, receiving and giving. It’s that rhythm I try to identify and go toward in my life.”
So if we find ourselves with a shortage of holiday cheer this season, a little gratitude can help. “Even if we have a challenging relative, there will be one thing that you can appreciate about that challenging relative,” says Barnett. “That can make a family dinner a little bit easier.”
heartspeakpeace.com or firstname.lastname@example.org
Rabbi Justin Goldstein
Rev. Barbara Waterhouse
Rev. Barbara Petersen
stgeorge.diocesewnc.org or centerartspirit.org