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The power of gratitude during the holidays

Al Waller: With Thanksgiving approaching, have you thought about what you’re most thankful for? It could be family, friends, or especially that upcoming feast.

But did you know that this practice of counting your blessings may actually carry a number of side benefits too? Well, there’s some tangible evidence that gratitude may positively reflect in your attitude towards yourself, your outlook, and even your health.

Joining us today is Mihaela Vincze, public health expert for nonprofit Transamerica Institute® to discuss what gratitude is, why it’s important, its many benefits, and ways to cultivate more of it in our daily lives.

So Mihaela, let’s start with the definition— what exactly is gratitude?

Mihaela Vincze: Gratitude is a very powerful sentiment that we feel when we think about what we’re thankful for.

The holidays present many things to be thankful for and are often an exciting time for people, especially if you haven’t seen loved ones in a while. However, the holidays can also be rough for some — family dynamics, seasonal changes, and sad memories of those who aren’t around can present challenges in our mental health. The ongoing pandemic doesn’t make things any easier.

Al: I can see that. Could you integrate something like gratitude to assist with these challenges?

Mihaela: Gratitude can help us cope with difficult times, appreciate what we have, and create a positive outlook. It doesn’t take big events or flashy gifts to come up with things to be grateful for. Recognizing the little things in life can actually reap great results.

Al: I hear you there too. These all sound like compelling reasons to start practicing gratitude early and often. Now, can you walk us through why gratitude is so beneficial?

Mihaela: When we are actively grateful, we create a sense of security for ourselves that can help us feel more grounded. In this way, gratitude is a source of strength that we can rely on to improve our wellbeing. A 2006 Behaviour Research and Therapy study found that Vietnam War Veterans with higher levels of gratitude experienced lower rates of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Acknowledging all you have to be thankful for – even during the hard times in your life – fosters resilience which may play a role in overcoming trauma. This could be especially helpful for coping with the holiday season if you find yourself having a difficult time.

Al: Well, I like the fact that something as simple as gratitude really can foster and increase mental strength. Are there any other benefits derived from this practice?

Mihaela: Gratitude may even improve our self-esteem, which can lead to overall satisfaction with life. A 2014 study published in the Journal of Applied Sport Psychology found that gratitude increased athletes’ self-esteem, which is an essential element for optimal performance.

Wait, there’s even more— aside from the psychological benefits, Robert Emmons, a renowned expert on gratitude, found that those who practiced gratitude consistently had stronger immune systems and lower blood pressure.

Al: So, if I read you correctly, it appears that practicing gratitude consistently can and will put that extra bounce in your step when you really need it. Now, could you share with us some ways we can start to be more grateful and reap these benefits?

Mihaela: I have three suggestions which are simple to integrate into your daily life.

Keep a daily gratitude journal. Keep a daily gratitude journal to document anything and everything you feel grateful for. This tool can help prioritize gratitude and make it a consistent habit or a part of our daily routine. If you find it difficult to come up with things to write, just think of all the things in your life that money cannot buy. A 2011 study published in Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being found that spending just 15 minutes a day jotting down a few grateful sentiments before bed may help you sleep better and longer.

Another idea that I personally like to do is write things I’m grateful for down on small pieces of paper and then stick them in a jar! I love it because I actually spend the day looking for things to write, and on my bad days, I reach into the jar and lift my spirits by reading a scrap from the past.

Al: You know Mihaela, it’s funny, you and I actually had a similar conversation on this a while back when COVID was raging, my mother having passed away as a result of it. You referenced the concept of the “Gratitude Jar.”

Well, I can personally attest that this attitude of gratitude practice really works and as a matter of fact I’ve actually had to increase the size of my jar! And that’s a good thing…so honestly thanks so much for that!

Now, what else have you got for us?

Mihaela: Make it a practice to express gratitude. Make sure that you tell someone how much you appreciate them. A study published in 2014 in Emotion found that thanking a new acquaintance makes them more likely to seek an ongoing relationship with you.

Gratitude really opens the door for so many more relationships! Say thank you for the little things, especially those little things you may take for granted. All these practices will strengthen your existing relationships and help you create new ones, which in turn, will create more opportunities for you to feel grateful.

Al: Well as you may have gathered by now, I’m a bit old school…to the point I still invest in personal stationery because I still write letters to keep in touch with my out-of-town friends, offer condolences or just to say thank you.

And to that point, my wife and I carry that over into the holidays by sending handwritten notes with our cards letting those we care about know that we’re really grateful for them.

Now, do you have some other thoughts you’d like to recommend?

Mihaela: Practice mindfulness. Have you ever gone for a walk while your thoughts were scrambling? Did you notice the natural beauty around you?

Probably not. Practicing mindfulness encourages us to celebrate the present by focusing on the now. Whether you’re laughing with a friend, watching your kids enjoy themselves, or savoring the last bite of dinner, really try to absorb the moment and notice your joy. Bringing awareness to the parts of your life which you’re grateful for can help you reduce stress and make you feel a lot more calm.

Al: Yes, I think a walk in the woods is one of my favorite ones. But these are all great ideas. As you mentioned, try to stay in the moment. Absorb it and enjoy it, right?

So, any final thoughts you’d like to share before we wrap things up?

Mihaela: Holiday time can present challenges for some people. That being said, we can improve our mindset and create a healthier outlook by remembering to be grateful. The next time you are feeling the holiday blues, try to engage in a gratitude practice and watch how uplifting it can be. The more you practice gratitude, the more you will have to be grateful for, and the more your mental and physical health may benefit from it.

Al: Well Mihaela, thanks again for sharing your research and these uplifting insights with us today. I can safely say I’ve had my attitude adjusted in a very positive way.

ClearPath: Your Roadmap to Health & Wealth is brought to you by Transamerica Institute, a nonprofit private foundation dedicated to identifying, researching, and educating the public about retirement security and the intersections of health and financial well-being. You can find our weekly podcast on WYPR’s Podcast Central and mobile app, wherever you get your podcasts, and at transamericainstitute.org.

I’m your host Al Waller…. until the next time, stay safe, be well and thanks for listening.

This podcast is produced by Transamerica Institute with assistance from WYPR.

Al Waller is a long-time Baltimore native and employment expert with a 30-year career in leading and advising locally and globally based corporations on matters including: Talent Acquisition and Retention, Employee Relations, Training and Development.
Mihaela Vincze is a public health expert and experienced health care educator. Serving as Transamerica Institute’s health care content developer, she shares insights on health and wellness on ClearPath—Your Roadmap to Health and WealthSM. Mihaela earned her master’s and bachelor’s degrees in public health at California State University, Northridge.