Practicing gratitude year long has mental health benefits

Don’t just give thanks at Thanksgiving.

For many people, the holiday season is an important time of year for giving thanks and spending time with family and friends. Researcher and educator, Brené Brown urges people to notice these kinds of feelings and to develop a gratitude practice as an ongoing part of our daily lives.

Throughout our lives, too many of us are bombarded with messages that say we’re not good enough, rich enough, good-looking enough, thin enough, smart enough – or just simply “not enough.” These messages are all too common and they come from a variety of sources including our interpersonal relationships – as well as from larger societal messages in advertising and other forms of media. More than we know, these messages can foster a scarcity mindset that often contributes to feelings of anxiety, sadness and depression.

An antidote to these painful feelings is to shift our focus to the practice of gratitude. Cultivating the practice of gratitude can help youth and adults become more resilient to the onslaught of negative and often damaging messages about not being “enough.”

Practicing gratitude involves more than having an “attitude of gratitude.” It involves an active process of self-reflection about what’s really important to us and then bringing these things to life through gratitude journals, meditation, prayer, the process of creating art, movement, singing – or simply saying out loud to ourselves or others that which we are grateful for. Contrary to popular thinking, these don’t need to be big or dramatic things or moments. Our deepest feelings of gratitude are often connected to the simple, small, sweet every day experiences of life such as noticing the shape of a tree, the softness of a pillow underneath our head, the smell of a loved one’s hair, the interesting ideas in a book we’re reading, the sound of a child’s laughter or the taste of a favorite food in our mouth.

Michigan State University Extension says that practicing gratitude isn’t about denying the reality that we and others experience throughout our lives at times – stress, painful emotions, difficult situations and challenges. In the face of life’s inevitable losses and stressors, slowing ourselves down and bringing intentions to that which we are grateful for has mental health benefits and contributes to our ability to live what Brown calls a “wholehearted life.” In her book The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are, Brown shares 10 guideposts for living a wholehearted life. Cultivating gratitude and joy are one of these important guideposts that help us become more resilient to the shame-based messages that say we’re “not enough.”

Practicing gratitude throughout the year (not just during the holidays!) provides opportunities to center our lives in feelings of love, belonging, connection, courage and compassion.

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