As the holiday season approaches, we tend to focus on the things that overwhelm us: We have gifts to purchase, meals to prepare, out-of-town guests to accommodate and spaces to spruce up and decorate. Of course, life doesn't stop there. We're faced with the overwhelming task of trying to balance all of this increased activity with already-full schedules, as well as the demands of work, family and social lives.
It is often only when the holiday meal has finally been served and everyone's sitting at the table that we take a moment to breathe again and enjoy the fruits of our labor. Sometimes, we allow the true meaning of the holidays to escape us completely.
Ironically, fretting only increases stress levels, which can have negative repercussions on both your mental and physical well-being. It's a vicious cycle few of us know how to escape successfully. The good news? Steering clear of the "pressure to please" is possible. It can be as simple as vowing to pare down your hectic schedule, setting limits and changing what you perceive others expect of you.
Whether we want to admit it or not, our stress is often self-inflicted. Our friends and family really only want a few things: to spend quality downtime together, enjoy a home-cooked meal, and offer thanks for the people and blessings in their lives through acts like gift giving and sharing meaningful sentiments.
We habitually give thanks at this time of year—calling attention to the special people and things that make up our world. But gratitude shouldn't be relegated to one season, just as benevolence shouldn't be something we show people in our lives merely on days of celebration. Spontaneous acts of kindness toward others, as well as taking time to reflect on the things we're appreciative of, can be immensely gratifying in itself.
Cognitive studies in the emerging field of gratitude research show the positive effects expressing gratitude can have on our health—psychological, spiritual and physical. Some experts believe it's actually in our self-interest to feel thankful, because it, ultimately, leads us to become better people. Consider recent studies conducted at the University of California Davis, which suggest that individuals who readily acknowledge gratitude have higher levels of vitality and greater optimism, suffer less stress and experience fewer episodes of clinical depression. Grateful people also tend to be less concerned with materialism, don't suffer as much from anxiety about status and monetary success and are, therefore, more likely to see themselves as "satisfied" with life.
Interestingly, these aren't necessarily the same people society would regard as "advantaged." Studies show that among the most grateful are people who've suffered personal tragedies or hardships, and those of modest financial means. They also tend to have a realistic view of the world, readily accepting universal ideas of good and bad. And yet, they still find ways to focus on the positive aspects of their lives despite having experienced disappointment or setbacks.
Unfortunately, thankfulness isn't a virtue we're commonly taught to cultivate. For years, psychology professionals didn't view gratitude as anything more than good manners—like remembering to write thank you notes or returning a favor. The "Encyclopedia of Human Emotions," a standard psychology field text, has only recently added the concept. But academics specializing in well-being research now realize how effective gratitude can be at lowering stress, leading to more successful life "outcomes."
One of the easiest ways to remind yourself of the many positives in life is to record your thoughts in a journal. Various psychological experiments—where researchers asked groups of individuals to keep a weekly gratitude journal—found that participants displayed improved physical health, had greater levels of optimism, and described themselves as happier than control groups who didn't journal, but had the same overall measures of health, optimism and exercise when the experiment began.
Positive thoughts and goodwill are infectious. How many times have you smiled at a virtual stranger only to have them frown back? Offer someone a hug, and they'll likely receive it with warmth and grace. Gratitude journaling also has the power to increase the positive flow of energy in your life. By association, others in your life will benefit as well. And that's something to be thankful for.
Make It a Habit
Some of us are admittedly better at journaling than others. I, for one, have never taken well to it. The writer in me wants a polished piece; edited and ready to share with the world. People like my mother—who jots down her thoughts in pretty handmade notebooks almost every day—fall at the other end of the spectrum. But like anything we practice regularly, journaling gets easier with time.
Try to set aside a specific time each week to reflect on what you're grateful for. Better yet, make gratitude journaling into a ritual. Reserve a serene space (free of noise and clutter), make yourself a cup of tea and quietly sit to gather your thoughts. Remember: Journaling has no official rules. You can record your feelings in a free-associative manner however you choose: as a bulleted list; in verse; as a narrative account; or even accompanied by doodles. The only requirement is to keep your thoughts positive. Steer clear of negative emotions or feelings of dismay—this is a time to ponder what is good about your life, not what you perceive as going wrong.
A Place for Everything
Need a book or journal to record your thoughts? Some prefer unlined pages and handmade paper, while others favor the structure of a lined journal with perforated pages. Not to worry. Gift shops like The Paper Place (2941 Old Canton Road, 601-366-3675) and bookstores like Lemuria Books (202 Banner Hall, 4465 Interstate 55 N., 601-366-7619) have plenty of bound journals to choose from. Try out the mini Moleskine journal, which is small enough to fit in your pocket. Favor something more unique? Etsy.com has oodles of handcrafted versions to suite anyone's fancy.
Loved this article Brandi. The more time I take to list what I have to be thankful for, the happier I become.....