The practice of gratitude: Now and beyond the holiday season

Ralph Waldo Emerson said this about gratitude: “Cultivate the habit of being grateful for every good thing that comes to you, and to give thanks continuously. And because all things have contributed to your advancement, you should include all things in your gratitude.” Emerson’s message is clear: Gratitude should be practiced, always.

Gratitude is a theme during the holidays. Whether we are celebrating and giving thanks at Thanksgiving, choosing to help others who are in need or without during Christmas, Hanukkah, or Kwanzaa, gratitude is present. But how can we continue this expression of gratitude throughout the year? The answer: practice, practice, practice.

“Gratitude is a profoundly moral emotion,” according to MCC’s Research and Evaluation Manager, Dr. Milena Batanova. “Appreciating what one has naturally helps with recognizing what others don’t have. We know from research that gratitude is also linked to happiness and well-being. It has a lot to do with positive thinking and recognizing positive things in your life, positive people in your life.” Engaging in the practice of gratitude makes us feel good, Batanova explains, and also makes others feel good, benefiting all involved.

There are three simple ways to get started in the practice of gratitude. First, the holiday season is a great time to kick start the message at home. Second, practice gratitude every day, and third, begin to extend the practice of gratitude beyond your home.

In many ways, according to Batanova, “gratitude is a way of expressing humility, to show a grounded sense of self and really appreciating others, their sacrifices, however small, the nice things that other people do for us. Expressing gratitude can also be about expressing empathy, showing that you care about someone, especially in times of need. All of these things are interrelated and take practice and reflection.”

Kick start gratitude during the holiday season

  • Get kids to think about all that they have. Maybe it’s a warm and clean home. Maybe it’s a special tradition a child enjoys. Batanova explains, “when we think about what we have, that in turn makes us much more grateful.” Ask a child to think about how they’d like to help someone who is homeless or someone without holiday traditions. How can they be of service? Get kids to get creative. It has to be meaningful to them.
  • Write thank-you notes to each other and extended family during the holiday season–you might even include them among your holiday gifts. What are you thankful for? Why are you thankful for a particular family member?

Practice gratitude every day

  • Give kids a daily prompt to think about the things they are grateful for. Get specific. Ask them if someone did something for them at school. Did a particular teacher give extra help or lend an ear? Did a friend help them in some way? Did someone they don’t know smile at them?
  • Parents can model simple expressions of gratitude in the home. Parents can thank kids for going above and beyond at home–for example, for clearing the table or doing the dishes without being asked.
  • Parents and children can practice using a gratitude journal, writing down what they are grateful for each evening. Even a quick sentence or word can get the job done and be meaningful.
  • When gratitude is not being expressed at all, Batanova says, “Call it out. Be explicit.” If a child, for instance, repeatedly doesn’t express gratitude for something a parent or sibling did for them, Batanova says to be honest and let the child know that can be hurtful, even insulting. Explain that it doesn’t take much to show appreciation.
  • “Try not to make it a chore, though,” Batanova explains further. “You don’t want it becoming something scripted, something that you or kids do just because. It has to be authentic.”

Extend gratitude beyond your inner circle

  • Find a way to express gratitude to people who are outside of your immediate circles by exposing children to those different from them, who are from other cultures, or who have different experiences. Together you might write a thank-you note to the school janitor or send a letter to someone in the military expressing gratitude for their service. (Operation Gratitude is a great starting point for anyone who wants to give thanks to our military.)