As the holiday season approaches, people often take the time to reflect on what they have to be grateful for. At the same time, others have difficulty finding a reason to give thanks. For those who have suffered losses during this season or for people who feel like life is handing out more lemons than lemonade, it can feel challenging to find something to appreciate. Despite the circumstances, whether you are in a time of great abundance in your life, or a time where you feel like you are missing more than you have, giving thanks just happens to be good for you.
UCLA conducted a research review in 2021. Looking at the findings from the studies, the reviewers concluded that gratitude can have positive effects on overall well-being, mental and physical health.
“Gratitude seems to reduce depression symptoms – people with a grateful mindset report higher satisfaction with life, strong social relationships and more self-esteem than those who don’t practice gratitude,” according to UCLA’s review of 70 studies with responses from nearly 30,000 people. While the researchers were not able to confirm the exact reasons why, their findings showed a relationship between practicing gratitude and having an improved overall mood.
Positive physical effects could even include lowering blood pressure. “Having grateful thoughts, even if you don’t write them down, also helps your heart by slowing and regulating your breathing to synchronize with your heartbeat,” according to the research. Even in lean times, giving thanks for what we have is good for our health.
So, what keeps us from being grateful?
Countless advertising dollars are spent to tell us that if we can just buy this thing, we will feel happier. The money that goes into marketing is very effective at showing us we need something else in order to feel good and whole and happy. People say to themselves, “If only I had that purse, or that car, or those boots, then I would finally feel good.” Even when each additional purchase proves ineffective, or at minimum only temporarily effective, we continue chasing that elusive carrot of happiness hoping to finally achieve a state of pure joy.
Social media keeps us connected to one another. On the upside, we can look through a friend’s vacation pictures or watch as a loved one welcomes home their new baby even when we cannot be there in person. The downside is that social media rarely shows the hard times that other people are going through, making it seem like everyone is always having the best day ever. When we are constantly looking at one another’s highlight reels, it can make people feel ever so slightly miserable all the time. Someone else always appears to have or do more. There is always a bigger birthday party or a better vacation or a nicer kitchen. Someone has received that promotion, or started the business, or finally found their one true love.
Relative deprivation, the feeling that we are missing something based on what someone else appears to have, still feels like deprivation. Whether we are actually lacking something is not nearly as important as feeling like we are lacking something. If we feel bad, we just feel bad. Comparing our lives to other people’s photoshopped and edited lives is not the best practice. The National Alliance on Mental Illness shared that, “Constantly viewing these idealized depictions can lead to feeling competitive and/or unhappy if we try to compare ourselves to these images that may not be realistic.”
During the holiday season, we may compare ourselves to the ideal family in our minds, to our neighbors, or even to our past. It is easy to feel like what we already have is not worthy of appreciating.
The holidays can be tough for some. In my own family, we have experienced many losses, and holiday gatherings often bring to mind the people who are no longer with us or the traditions we have missed. It can make the idea of celebrating less appealing. What has helped, however, is intentionally choosing to be grateful for what is right in front of me.
My Grandmother Bessie is no longer here to bake me my very own sweet potato pie, my uncle Kevin is not here to welcome me with his signature ear-to-ear grin, and we no longer gather at my grandfather’s home to look through old family photos on his slide projector. Not to mention how no one could beat my aunt Mary’s quick wit. There was not a sharper, more hilarious tongue in town. These fond memories will remain in the past. But with new holidays comes an opportunity to create new memories. I can choose to be grateful for the new traditions that I get to start this season. While the good old days are long gone, the present is always a present.
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