By Barbara Pierce
This has been an abominably bad year.
We’ve heard the word “unprecedented” an unprecedented number of times. If I’d been watching this pandemic as a movie, I’d have said to myself: “Thank goodness that’ll never happen in real life!”
But it is happening.
We’re stressed, while many are tinged with sadness, anxiety, or depression.
So how do we get through what should be the happiest time of the year but is so full of challenges?
Seeking out the positives can help us not only cope, but enjoy, this holiday season.
There is growing evidence that the absence of positive thoughts has a greater negative impact on our well-being than does the presence of negative ones.
I think that’s hugely significant. Positive thinking is better for our emotional health than getting rid of negative thoughts.
Thinking positive thoughts means gratitude. Gratitude means expressing appreciation of what we have. Noticing simple pleasures.
The research is clear: Expressing gratitude makes you healthier, happier and increases your feelings of well-being. People who take time to notice and reflect upon the things they’re thankful for experience more positive emotions. They feel more alive, sleep better, express more compassion and kindness, and even have stronger immune systems.
Gratitude helps us cope with stress.
Here are ways you might cultivate gratitude during this holiday season:
— Celebrate the present moment.
We don’t need to reserve our gratitude for the big, important things. In every moment, notice the small, haphazard pleasures: the color of the sky, the softness of your sweater, the comforting home around you, the peacefulness of your neighborhood, the chirping of the birds.
It’s simple. At any moment, ask yourself: What’s happening here and now that’s pleasant, beautiful or helpful? Pause and enjoy it.
For me, at this moment, I’m content to have this cup of hot coffee steaming in the ray of sunlight coming through the window. The sky is pale and picturesque. My houseplants are doing well — I love the variety of colors and leaves massed together. Soon I’ll add red poinsettias.
Earlier today, as I walked, a hawk soaring and gliding over the treetops caught my attention. I stopped for a few minutes to watch, his black wings a vivid contrast to the white clouds and blue sky. Watching him circle overhead, I was filled with awe and a feeling of well-being.
Those pleasant little details may be small, but they’re not insignificant. They contribute to your well-being, and well-being is all that matters ultimately. Every moment contains so many pleasant, helpful or beautiful details.
Spend time thinking about being grateful for activities of the season, such as having close family to spend Christmas with, opening presents with children, the smell of the Christmas tree and the twinkling lights. Thinking about being grateful is also helpful.
— Celebrate others.
The second part of gratitude is acknowledging the good we’ve received from others. If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s how much the people in our lives mean to us.
Consider the people who are important to you, now in your life. Write a letter to let them know that they are important to you and why. If you’re sending Christmas cards, add a personal letter.
— Remember those in your life who believed in you and helped you get where you are. Take a moment to write to them, letting them know what they’ve meant to you.
No time to write? Send a text, email or use social media.
— Keep a gratitude journal.
A gratitude journal is another way to practice gratitude during the holidays. Every night, write down three things for which you are grateful. Get specific by writing: “My partner gave me a shoulder rub when he knew I was really stressed,” or “My sister dropped off a beautifully wrapped gift I love looking at.” Hold these images in your mind for several minutes.
If every day sounds like way too much, try for once a week.
If you do this regularly, you’ll notice a difference. It works because it slowly changes the way you perceive situations by adjusting what you focus on.
“You can’t feel any negative emotions when you feel gratitude,” said my 92-year-old friend Peg, who is thriving and easily the most joyful person I have ever had the good fortune to know.
We usually don’t remember exactly what happened at the holidays from year to year, but when something this different happens, it’ll stick out. This holiday season will definitely be memorable because it’s so different. It will be important to find ways to find joy.
Barbara Pierce is a retired licensed clinical social worker with many years of experience helping people. If you would like to purchase a copy of her book, “When You Come to the Edge: Aging” or if you have questions for her, contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.