Gaining a sense of gratitude could prove a worthy goal for 2021
“Piglet noticed that even though he had a Very Small Heart, it could hold a rather large amount of Gratitude.”
Like so many people, our family was all too happy to bid adieu to 2020 and welcome 2021 over the winter holiday. For so many reasons, we felt ready to begin a new year filled with the hope that things will be better this year. At times during the past year, we agreed with basketball great LeBron James when he tweeted back in March, “…What we really need to cancel is 2020!”
Even though 2021 is starting with its own challenges, it’s still worth asking how we can help our children take something good from the past year and learn and grow from the experience. Health writer Tara Parker-Pope encourages us to abstain from the typical habit of making resolutions for a new year and instead, plan time for reflection.
As we know from research and personal experience, New Year’s resolutions have a short shelf life. With the best of intentions, we begin the year promising to exercise more and eat less. Then in a few weeks, or maybe even March, we’re skipping our workouts and sneaking “just one more” cookie.
According to Parker-Pope, research shows that we have a better chance of altering our behavior if we practice “stacking”, i.e. combining what we hope to do with a previous behavior. “It’s the reason doctors, for example, suggest taking a new medication at the same time you brush your teeth or have your morning coffee: You’re more likely to remember to take your pill when you piggyback it onto an existing habit. Adding steps to your daily commute often is a better way to add exercise to your day than trying to carve out a separate time for a daily walk.”
If we spend time reflecting on the past year, we may be able to develop some habits for the new year that will stand us in good stead. Again and again, I heard parents say that they enjoyed eating meals more regularly with their children. Other people told me that via Zoom, they reconnected with people they had not seen for a long time. How do we hang on to these positive changes when our lives return to “normal,” whenever that may be?
Perhaps another habit we fostered in the past year was gratitude. Whether it was banging pots and pans to show appreciation for health care workers, tipping more than usual when picking up a meal at curbside, or patronizing a local business, people figured out ways to say “thank you.” Similarly, Keystone students and families showed their gratitude to faculty and staff for their hard work with acts of kindness and generosity.
As studies have shown, gratitude is more than merely a nice thing to do. A 2011 Harvard Medical School post called “Giving Thanks Can Make You Happier” referenced studies mentioning the impact of writing notes of gratitude. “Two psychologists, Dr. Robert A. Emmons of the University of California, Davis, and Dr. Michael E. McCullough of the University of Miami, have done much of the research on gratitude. In one study, they asked all participants to write a few sentences each week, focusing on particular topics…One group wrote about things they were grateful for that had occurred during the week. A second group wrote about daily irritations or things that had displeased them, and the third wrote about events that had affected them (with no emphasis on them being positive or negative). After 10 weeks, those who wrote about gratitude were more optimistic and felt better about their lives. Surprisingly, they also exercised more and had fewer visits to physicians than those who focused on sources of aggravation.”
Without overstating the case, there does seem to be an association between expressing gratitude and happiness. Parker-Pope also points to a possible physiological benefit of appreciation: researchers say that those people in another study who wrote expressions of gratitude, “showed greater activation in a part of the brain called the medial prefrontal cortex, believed to be related to both reward and higher-level cognition.”
As we move into 2021, perhaps we can continue to build on the gratitude habits we manifested in 2020. Every day, we can practice saying ‘thank you’ on a daily basis to someone in our lives; we can take the time to write an email of appreciation or a text of thanks. We can continue to support local businesses, and we can tip a little bit more. If one result of the past annus horribilis is our children and we are more grateful, then 2020 will also have been a year with some good lessons.