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The holidays are upon us—but like so much this year, everything is different because of COVID-19. Public health professionals are recommending that we avoid travel and that our holiday celebrations include only people in our household. But even if we can’t gather with loved ones in the ways that we want to, in a sense, the pandemic is reminding us of what the holidays are really about: loving each other, protecting each other’s health, and giving thanks.
Why Feel Grateful Now?
With all the challenges that COVID-19 has brought to people’s physical, emotional, and financial well-being, you may be questioning whether in 2020, there’s much to give thanks about at all.
But once again, the pandemic brings us back to basics. If you and your loved ones are healthy, that’s something to be grateful for. If you’re employed and your business is surviving, even thriving—that’s huge. If you’re engaged in stimulating studies that are advancing your career, or creative pursuits that give you a sense of meaning and purpose, you’re doing very well. You may feel gratitude for the healthcare workers who are saving lives and the essential workers who are keeping services running. Even loss and conflict can make us deeper, more empathetic humans. It’s good to pause and acknowledge such hidden gifts.
Benefits of Practicing Gratitude
Consciously focusing on gratitude is a way to pull ourselves out of the feelings of anxiety and depression that are so common in our pandemic-colored world. Research shows a strong, consistent association between gratitude and happiness. In one study, participants who wrote gratitude lists for 10 weeks reported more optimism and good feelings than other participants. The benefits were also, surprisingly, physical: They exercised more and had fewer visits to physicians.
Practicing gratitude is not just about giving thanks around a holiday table. It can also be part of a daily meditation or writing routine.
What Is Gratitude Meditation?
Most forms of meditation involve sitting still and focusing on an object as a way to quiet the mind’s random chatter. That object can be the breath, a candle flame, or gratitude, to name a few examples. In gratitude meditation, you consciously focus your attention on the things in your life that you are grateful for.
How to Practice Gratitude Meditation
- Sit in a comfortable position. You can sit on a straight-backed chair with your feet on the floor and the backs of your hands on your knees, palms turned upward in a gesture of receptivity. Or you can sit cross-legged on a meditation cushion with your knees touching the floor and your hands in the same receptive position.
- Set a timer. Set the timer on your phone for 10 minutes to start. You can increase that to 15 and 20 as you get the hang of it. Meditation apps like Calm and Insight Timer have timers you can set with meditation bell sounds.
- Become aware of your breathing. Focus on your breath and body sensations as you inhale and exhale. Relax any tension in your body.
- Turn your thoughts toward gratitude. You might start with what you’re grateful for in your immediate environment—such as the sun on your face or the view from your window. Then move to aspects of your body that you’re grateful for, like eyes that see beauty, ears that hear the birds outside, and a heart that keeps beating. You can then move to acknowledging feelings, such as love for people in your life—as well as gratitude for the basic necessities, such as the roof over your head, food on the table, your work or studies. Dwell on each thought for a while, feeling the sensations that gratitude generates in your body, before moving on.
You can also try a guided gratitude meditation, such as one offered by the Headspace or Insight Timer app. And you don’t have to be sitting to practice gratitude meditation. You can do it while you’re out on a walk, waiting in line, stuck in traffic—anywhere, really.
What Is a Gratitude Journal?
A gratitude journal is a tool to keep track of the good things in life—and build your own inner resilience for hard times. Set a specific goal, such as listing five things per day that you’re grateful for or writing in-depth about one thing per day. If it’s helpful, you can use the following gratitude journal prompts, or make up your own:
- What relationship (person or animal) am I grateful for today?
- What did someone do for me that I’m grateful for today?
- What did someone say to me that I’m grateful for today?
- What aspects of my life am I grateful for today?
- What insights did I gain today that I’m grateful for?
- What did I find beautiful today?
Also check out our post on the benefits of journaling and other types of journals you can keep.
Other Ways to Cultivate Gratitude
Write Thank-You Notes
To cultivate good feelings and nurture your relationship with another person, write them a thank-you letter expressing your appreciation for what that person did for you and how it made a difference in your life. Make a habit of sending at least one gratitude letter a month. Even in situations where just writing “Thanks” might be enough, consider writing a longer message that expresses your gratitude more fully.
You might even consider writing a thank-you letter to a person who has been difficult in your life, such as a parent, a boss, or an ex-partner. Reflect on what you learned from this relationship and how it has made you who you are.
It can also be powerful to write a gratitude letter to yourself—especially gratitude for how we’ve overcome challenges and demonstrated resilience.
Give Back to the Community
Volunteering our time or donating money to worthy organizations can cultivate positive feelings while helping others in need. Now is the perfect time to give to local food banks, shelters for homeless youth, or other organizations that speak to you.
These are challenging times for all of us—but a little gratitude (or a lot) will get us through!
 Harvard Health Publishing, “Giving thanks can make you happier,” Harvard Medical School: https://www.health.harvard.edu/healthbeat/giving-thanks-can-make-you-happier