Finding warmth and gratitude in 2020

A guide to giving thanks amid the chaos

An ephemeral waterfall flows into Lake Erie on Kelley's Island. Perry's Victory and International Peace Memorial on Ohio's South Bass Island is on the backround. (Getty Images)

Ah, the holidays. A time of love and joy. But can we find grace in a year where hope feels like squeezing an empty toothpaste tube?

The reality is that no amount of thankfulness will undo the harm caused by President Trump, and no amount of positivity will make COVID-19 disappear. No matter how much we might want it to, that’s not how it works. However, learning to find ways to be thankful can help us face the challenges ahead. Studies show that a regular practice of gratitude can provide benefits ranging from better sleep, increased happiness and improved relationships. After four years of heavy political turmoil, and a seemingly longer 2020, a season of thanks might be just the antidote we need — along with a highly safe and effective novel coronavirus vaccine, of course.

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Cultivating the benefits of gratitude requires an active and ongoing practice, one we’ve all become pretty rusty at as of late. When is the last time you found three things per day you were thankful for or stopped doomscrolling on Twitter? Do you take the time each day to rest your mind and reset? Much like abdominal crunches or bicep curls, gratitude is an exercise for the brain which can reduce stress and improve clarity over time by favorably rewiring neural pathways. As beginners — which most of us are — even a 5-minute daily prescription goes a long way.

Admittedly, thankfulness is a little harder to come by right now, and that’s exactly why we need to practice. It’s hard to be grateful when over a quarter million of our neighbors, friends and family have died from a virus. It’s harder yet to be happy when we can’t give a hug to those who are healthy. Indeed, whether you’re unemployed, facing eviction or having political-induced family troubles, the struggles this year are real and regrettably normal. Therefore, the first thing we can do for ourselves is to commit to digging a little deeper to find the things we often take for granted, even if it’s as simple as a hot cup of tea in the morning.

Perhaps ironically, having to work a little harder to find what we’re grateful for is in and of itself a lesson in gratefulness. While many of us are experiencing a tougher than average year, many people struggle just as much or more every year without our awareness at all. In the United States, 1 in every 4 children are struggling to find sufficient food during COVID-19, and millions are homeless. But food insecurity and homelessness existed long before COVID-19 and Trump. As recently as last year, 1 in 7 American children did not know where their next meal would come from. Unfortunately, we’ve often celebrated while others struggle. Hopefully, this cognizance will turn into action, including in the act of increased volunteering, as it is also shown to provide benefits of happiness and thankfulness.

It’s OK if a daily practice of gratitude is new or doesn’t come easily at first — it certainly doesn’t for me. Personally, I’m far more comfortable with brain workouts that incorporate logic, music or crossword puzzles over exercises to clear my mind. To this end, each day can be a commitment to getting a little better at mindfulness in a way that works best for each of us, almost like a New Year’s resolution. While building gratitude for some might include a daily gratitude journal or openly expressing thanks, others might find a daily meditation to better suit them.

Don’t expect big results right away. It takes weeks to months to see tangible shifts in brain chemistry and daily benefits. Still, over time these renewed skills can improve, and there’s no doubt achievements in emotional health and intelligence will be a marker of future success for societies. We can already see this in the burgeoning fields of behavioral economics, whereby considerations of measuring beyond GDP to human happiness are slowly becoming mainstream conversations. In 2012, the United Nations implemented the first “World Happiness Report” (American cities don’t rank until No. 18), and in New Zealand where Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern implemented the first national budget with measures for human health and happiness — a sign of better times to come. 

As increased anxiety and stress have taken their toll, let us hope this season of gratitude will usher in new beginnings politically and personally — besides, as a meditation guru might remind us, we’ve earned it.

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