Christmas can be a stressful time of year. You will blow your budget, your relatives will annoy you, and you’ll receive gifts that go straight to Vinnies, all in 40℃ heat.
Meanwhile, your friends post pictures on social media of their idyllic vacations, yearly accomplishments, and super happy toddlers and cats. You may feel extra stress from not accomplishing all the goals you set at the start of the year. You feel this stress in the face of other people’s overt jolliness.
So how can the science of gratitude help you not only cope with, but enjoy, the ups and downs of the festive season?
Read more: Ten tips to make your holidays less fraught and more festive
Remind me again, what is gratitude?
Gratitude, in short, is a strong feeling of appreciation towards someone who’s helped you. You can also feel gratitude when you make a habit of noticing and appreciating the positives in life. This might be feeling grateful for a cooling breeze on a hot day, appreciating your abilities in the kitchen or as a good friend.
Over the past 20 years or so, there has been quite a bit of research on gratitude.
Some of our own research shows older people are more grateful than younger people; suggests gratitude serves an evolutionary purpose by helping humans bond; and shows it’s possible to become more grateful with practice.
How can gratitude help me?
Practising gratitude often can have many positive impacts, including: an increased sense of well-being and life satisfaction; positive emotional functioning such as more pleasurable emotions and thoughts that life is going well; increased optimism; a sense of connectedness; improved relationships; and more and better quality sleep.
So all in all, researchers really get quite excited about all the positive things gratitude is related to.
Read more: Explainer: what is positive psychology and how can you use it for yourself?
There is also research indicating gratitude can help increase resilience and cope with everyday life stress, as well as with more major adversities.
Gratitude can help mental health – for instance, a depressed mood or post-traumatic stress disorder – and with coping well from loss after trauma.
Sign me up. How can I use it this Christmas?
So, if you want to buffer against those annoying relatives, blown budgets and be more resilient to life’s stressors, developing a greater sense of gratitude can help.
Among the many ways researchers have tested, you can:
write a thank you note for a gift or behaviour you’ve appreciated. It doesn’t have to be a hand written letter. You can express gratitude via text, email or social media
visit someone and thank them in person
keep a daily journal of things you feel grateful for, such as noting down three things at the end of the day as well as your role in bringing about the three things
spend time contemplating being grateful for certain activities, such as having a family or friends to spend Christmas with or opening presents with children. In other words, thinking about being grateful is also helpful, not just the act of being grateful.
Read more: More than words: saying 'thank you' does make a difference
Hang on a minute. Surely it’s not that simple
However, there are also a few tricks, twists and turns to be aware of:
consider cultural nuances: someone’s culture can influence how they perceive and react to gratitude. For example, in East Asian and Indian cultures, receiving gratitude can be accompanied by feelings of indebtedness or guilt. This can put pressure on people to reciprocate. This can also be true, but not to the same extent, in Western cultures
gratitude is not for everything: gratitude is not the panacea to all stresses of life; it helps, but it does not cure. It should also not be used to distract from real issues and problems, especially in interpersonal relationships
think about when you use it: be purposeful and strategic about expressing gratitude and don’t overdose on it. Start with the people who help you the most and are the most meaningful to you
don’t forget yourself: show gratitude towards yourself as well as others, such as being grateful for some of your strengths and capabilities.
If you can’t be grateful …
With all the best will in the world, it can be difficult to be grateful faced with the same present from Aunt Betty three years in a row. In this case, our only advice is to smile, and grin and bear it, rather than to pretend to be grateful. You will feel better and so will she.
Matthew Higgins, who has been admitted to the PhD program at Claremont Graduate University in the United States, co-authored this article.