It’s that time of year, when most of us take at least a moment to stop and be thankful. This year is a little different. No social media flood with the hashtag #givethanks, but a lot of pandemic fatigue and an apparent escalation in animosity towards people who think / act / look differently than us. This makes me sad.
Gratitude is not a fancy idea that causes us to cringe as we spit out a list of gratitude. It’s not a superficial concept that comes up once a year and, I admit, it’s not just a hashtag. Neuroscientist Dr Antonio Damasio is said to have said… “We are not thinking machines that feel, but emotional machines that think. ”
Gratitude makes us happier. Practicing genuine gratitude helps us relieve depression, improve our immune system, and strengthen our bonds with the people around us. It can help improve heart health (literally and figuratively), help build trauma resilience, reduce stress and depression, and decrease stress hormones like cortisol.
Gratitude literally changes your brain. It releases the feel-good hormones dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin, but it also rewires synapses and helps us see more of the positive in our world. It makes us both more generous and less materialistic. Gratitude can also reduce impatience and improve our decision-making skills.
Sometimes it’s easy to disparage a practice of gratitude. “Don’t you know how horrible things are, Holly?” Indeed, I do – and gratitude can help us heal. I’m not suggesting (and neither is the research) that we Pollyanna make our way through life and become toxic positivists. I suggest (and research confirms it) that gratitude can get us through even the darkest times.
When I was deep in Mom’s burnout, I struggled to find things I could be grateful for, so I started small. “I am grateful for the air conditioning. “” I am grateful for the sun. “I’m grateful that no one set the house on fire” until one day, in May 2005, I couldn’t tell. Then I was thankful that no one was hurt. I was grateful to the neighbors and our local firefighters, for their help and their hearts.
Many years later, I’m still grateful for the air conditioning and the sun, but I’m also grateful for some of life’s deeper things. I am grateful for the lessons learned through deep grief and pain. I am not grateful that my daughters died. I am grateful that I was able to be their mother and I am grateful for the many, many lessons they have taught me. I am even grateful for the tender heart that was softened by sorrow.
Author Robert Emmons, an expert on gratitude, writes that “In the face of demoralization, gratitude has the power to energize. In the face of brokenness, gratitude has the power to heal. In the face of despair, gratitude has the power to bring hope.
That doesn’t mean it’s easy. Please don’t give in to the temptation to say to someone else, “At least you…” while minimizing their injury – or to tell yourself. Gratitude does not mean rejecting the pain of others, or our own. Genuine gratitude doesn’t mean we won’t need therapy or medication or doctor visits or time with grief counselors and support groups.
According to Emmons, “Treating a life experience through a grateful lens doesn’t mean denying negativity. It is not a form of superficial escapism. Instead, it means realizing the power you have to turn an obstacle into an opportunity. It means reframe loss into potential gain, recast negativity into positive channels for gratitude. “
We are all broken in one way or another – usually in several ways – but this breaking can also make us beautiful. It is a long-standing tradition in Japan to mend broken pottery with gold. Called “kintsugi”, this art form does not try to hide the break, but turns it into a magnificent art. Gratitude may well be the human form of the kintsugi, turning shattering into beauty.
Holly Richardson is editor-in-chief of Utah Policy and columnist for Deseret News. A former Utah legislator, she holds a master’s degree in professional communication and is working toward a doctoral thesis in political science. She and her husband, Greg, are the parents of a large and unique family.