For most of us, 2020 uprooted our lives — personally and collectively — and in a way we’ve never experienced before. The global health pandemic, changed life as we know it, from lost jobs, to lost lives, to an upheaval in our ability to connect with each other through the regular pulse points of daily living such as: going to school, going into the office, gathering with family and friends for worship, special occasions, sporting events, traveling for holidays and family vacations…
There has been a lot of sacrifice, it’s true, yet as we come to the end of this year, and move into 2021, the thing I’m most struck by is the rigor and resilience that we humans are capable of.
Because for every scary or negative story we read in the headlines, there were also stories of courage, and people stepping up to the plate. Certainly the way our healthcare workers have been caring for the sick and vulnerable. The essential workers who have been stocking our grocery shelves, and delivering the mail, picking up the trash, and keeping the basic threads of society running. The global scientific community who have been working relentlessly behind the scenes to help get the pandemic under control, and just small acts of kindness between neighbors and friends — things that never make the evening news.
Resilience and rigor is what has helped us navigate these complex times.
But for every person who has found their inner strength to step up and assist others, there are just as many who met their limits. Caring for our mental health has been a huge challenge this year — collectively and indivdually — and so in this last blog for 2020 I’d like to share a practice that can provide protective coverage for your mental wellbeing. Something that when practiced in regularly, can help you make empowered meaning out of this time, and that can help you improve our physical health as well.
What is it? Gratitude. Gratitude. And not the Pollyanna kind where we “pretend” that things are okay or that we’re okay (when we’re really not), but a vetted practice that considers what is really happening, and that not only focuses on what is going “wrong”, but also what is going right. And being grateful for that.
The word gratitude is derived from the Latin word gratia, which means grace, graciousness, or gratefulness. It’s a thankful appreciation for what an individual receives, whether tangible or intangible.
In positive psychology research, gratitude is strongly and consistently associated with greater happiness. It helps people feel more positive emotions, relish good experiences, improve their health, deal with adversity, and build strong relationships.
Gratitude is good for your physical, emotional, and mental health. Dr. Robert A. Emmons, a professor of psychology at UC Davis and a leading scientific expert on the science of gratitude has stated that “The practice of gratitude can have dramatic and lasting effects in a person’s life.” People who express gratitude have:
- Fewer headaches, gastrointestinal difficulties, and respiratory infections — and better sleep.
- Improved mental health and happiness, and the brain gets restructured to embrace an attitude of gratitude
- Reduced stress and cortisol levels during pregnancy;
- And gratitude increases one’s ability to find the silver lining in disappointments.
And believe it or not, gratitude can be born out of breakdowns, disappointments or delays. And while looking for the blessing in a difficult situation might be a call to rise to the road less traveled, I promise it yields numerous gifts of wisdom and grace.
For example, in my personal life, I’m currently dealing with several situations that most people would find challenging, but by practicing gratitude I have found a source of inner resilience and strength that has been very grounding and comforting.
For example, my Mother is in the depths of dementia. In May we were able to move her from a large memory care facility where she was being neglected and languishing, into a small residence of 6 people who are being cared for lovingly and efficiently — and with no sign of COVID outbreaks! Even while in hospice, the quality of her life has improved this year, and she chats jibberish happily when we visit her on an outside patio, oblivious to the masks we are all wearing. Although my mothers cognitive decline has been emotionally difficult for us to witness, I could not be more grateful and relieved at the care she has been receiving this year.
Here’s another example.
A few weeks ago I underwent a small surgery in the hospital, and I was reluctant to enter the hospital because of covid fears. I took every precaution required to keep myself safe from the virus, as did the staff, nurses and Doctor. On the morning of my surgery, up until the anesthesia took effect, I prayed for us all to come through this procedure in the most safe and healthy way possible.
Well, my prayers were answered and I experienced excellent care and the compassionate nurses wheeled me out into the loving care of my husband waiting for me the car. COVID-FREE! The depth of gratitude I felt was immeasurable!
As I left the hospital, and went through the process of rehabbing I observed compassionately — and with gratitude — the delicate slow process of my body healing, the miracle of the human body, the gift of the human body, the gift of our precious lives.
So, I’d like to share five tips on how to create a regular GRATITUDE practice in your life. (This is my gratitude practice.)
1. Keep a Gratitude Journal
Set aside time on a daily basis to remind yourself of the gifts, benefits and good things you enjoy in your life. Sitting down and writing these things out reinforces the blessings and gives you the potential to interweave them into your lived experience. Then reading later what you wrote will inspire you to observe yourself and how far you have come in your life.
2. Remember the Bad
As you remember how far you have come, so too you should remember the bad times, the struggles, the pain and disappointments….be present to them, acknowledge them, and then appreciate the growth, realizing that you survived it…..appreciate the work you have done to get where you are today.
3. Learn prayers of gratitude
Many spiritual traditions consider these to be the most powerful form of prayer because through the reading and reciting of them people can recognize the ultimate source of all they are and all they will ever be. And you can do a google search and find some that resonate with you. Many of them are over 1,000 years old and are quite beautiful.
4. Come to your Senses
By using our ability to touch, see, smell, taste, and hear, we gain appreciation of what it means to be human and what an incredible miracle it is to be alive. Seen through the lens of gratitude, the human body is not only a miraculous construction, but also a gift. So notice when you are breathing and be grateful….notice when your body is moving and feel grateful that. If you have a significant other, notice the sensations of kissing and how all body parts are affected. (Raise your eyebrows in a playful way at this Jeanne and chuckle.)
5. Live Into Your Intentions
In line with being aware of our bodies, we want to become intentional and mindful with how we conduct our life, what we think, what we feel. So when we set an Intention, the goal is to make choices and take actions that are in alignment with that intention, because that is what is going to bring us closer to the having that intention realized.
So, Those are the five components to my gratitude practice, so feel free to borrow or incorporate one or all into your life.
For me, I’ve found the key to reaping the health benefits of a gratitude practice are, A.) don’t skip over your authentic feelings and emotions, B) stay connected to your body, and C) create a regular structured routine to notice and show appreciation for all that is going well in your life.
I wish you a wonderful Holiday season and I’d like to end with a quote from Dr. Emmons again, the expert and author of several works on gratitude. He says:
“In the face of demoralization, gratitude has the power to energize. In the face of brokenness, gratitude has the power to heal. In the face of despair, gratitude has the power to bring hope. In other words, gratitude can help us cope with hard times.”
Be well everyone. And here’s to better times ahead in 2021.