As the holidays approach, life can get busier, stresses can mount, and, for many people, there can be painful reminders of the past, triggered by the holidays themselves. Most of us, already living busy lives, find ourselves thrust into “fast forward” during the holidays. We’re tyrannized by our own to-do lists, losing appreciation for and connection to the most important things and people in our lives. In the midst of what is supposed to be a joyful time, we can often find ourselves hurried, discontent, and, wondering how to be happy again.
This year with Thanksgiving fast approaching, I found myself looking at things a little bit differently. Thanksgiving serves as the grand entrance to the holiday season. I mean, I love the holidays. But, as a wife, a mom to four (amazing) kids, and as a marriage and family therapist, my life is already completely busy. Adding holidays means adding stress. It just does. Just thinking about it raises my blood pressure. I want to be grateful. I really do, but, life is stressful.
So what did I do to look at things differently? I asked myself this question. What if gratitude, the act of Thanksgiving itself, is the way to lower stress? Would focusing on thankfulness help me to be happier and experience greater joy and contentment during the holidays? What if gratitude itself is the key for how to be happy again?
I decided to do some research. Turns out, I wasn’t the first person curious about the correlation between gratitude and happiness. It also appears there’s a relationship between gratitude and stress—an inverse relationship. That is, the higher the level of gratitude a person has, the lower their stress level.
Dr. Robert A. Emmons, a researcher in the field of positive psychology, studied the effects of gratitude in 2003. He found that the people in his experimental group (people who practiced gratitude daily) had a 25% increase in their personal happiness scores. They did this by daily journaling up to five things they were grateful for, for 10 weeks. They also were found to have fewer health complaints, fewer doctor visits, and perhaps more surprisingly, they even exercised more and slept better. All this just from journaling five things you’re grateful for each day? Sign me up!
I think it works out beautifully that grateful Thanksgiving precedes joyful Christmas each year. Christmas brings to us the holiest of gifts, the birth of our Savior. Without gratitude, it’s just another day. No joy. Without gratitude, we make this season into so much of what it was never intended to be. The first Thanksgiving involved people with different views and backgrounds who came together to celebrate their gratitude to the God who provides. Together. And, then it was that gratitude that ushered in the Christmas holiday season. Maybe it’s the order of these holidays that can offer us the greatest reminder. When you’re focusing on being grateful, the happy part just naturally follows.
Need more convincing on how to be happy again this holiday season (or any season)? Look at what gratitude offers, and get on board the happiness train.
- It refocuses us on the positive, reminding us of what we appreciate in life. (Philippians 4:8)
- It increases positivity and halts negative thought patterns. (Philippians 4:6-7)
- It helps us to appreciate and focus on what we have. (Psalm 100:1-5)
- It renews the mind and increases mental and emotional resilience. (Romans 12:2)
- It helps to counterbalance the negative effects of stress. (Proverbs 17:22)
- It helps us to appreciate our own life, and reminds us to pay it forward. (2 Corinthians 9:11)
- It offers a fuller perspective on life that isn’t based in negativity. (1 Thessalonians 5:18)
- It rewires the brain, increasing positive thoughts and associations. (Romans 12:2)
All this, and, it reminds me that my lengthy to-do list isn’t just a list of “have-tos”, but instead a list of “get-tos.” Everything on my list is there because I chose it, I own it, or simply because I breathe. No matter how difficult my situation is, I get to live this life of mine. As a counselor, I know there are some incredibly painful circumstances. There are times when being grateful is a real challenge. But, I can be grateful for the sunshine, or food, a friend, or an encouraging passerby. I can choose to be grateful because even when life is bad, God is still good—and He still cares about me. And, with that realization, the glass shifts. It’s no longer half-empty but can be beautifully half-full.
So, join me in a challenge of finding three to five unique things to be grateful for daily. Look for God at work in your everyday life. Create an ongoing journal, perhaps one on your phone. And, let’s see if this gratitude stuff is all that they say it is. Let’s see if it can help us all learn how to be happy again.
Okay, one more challenge. Share your gratitude with those around you. Pay it forward. Be the light that helps others to see the Light. God’s Light.