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Practicing gratitude can help get you through Thanksgiving

Image of a woman in fall weather, eyes closed, and looking unto s sunset. (Photo by Getty Images)
(Photo credit: Getty Images)

Thanksgiving will look different this year as COVID-19 infections steadily increase across the country, but there are opportunities to hone the spirit of the holiday.

The CDC recommends Americans have a low-key holiday this year, and enjoy the traditional meal among their home family unit. With a million new cases reported in the United States within a week, turkey day has the potential to become a super spreader event if droves of people travel.

Even in a non-traditional setting, there are opportunities to find meaning and connect with loved ones, to remember the “thanks” part of Thanksgiving.

The benefits of expressing gratitude are well-documented. Studies show spending five minutes a day thinking about what we are grateful for results in more happiness and more positivity in our lives, according to Thomas R. Cole, PhD, director of the McGovern Center for Humanities and Ethics at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth). Regularly expressing gratitude increases positive emotions and physical wellbeing, and helps keep suicidal thoughts at bay. In addition, it can help improve social interactions. Expressing gratitude to others also enhances relationships.

“Over the years, I’ve made a very conscious habit of thanking people for what they do, every day. It is a simple practice, but feeling appreciated makes a difference in the experience of being at work,” Cole said. “Even in situations of strong disagreement, one thing to do is to thank the other person for letting you know what they think. That opens the possibility of continuing conversation and perhaps of reaching mutual agreement or agreeing to disagree.”

Reaping the benefits of gratitude takes conscious effort. The journey is personal and it takes time. Some approach it through journaling, meditation, making lists, verbal affirmations, or through acts of service like volunteer work.

“Each of us must find our own way,” Cole said. “ It takes effort. It’s not about trying to fix what you can’t control. It’s about slowing down, changing our perspective, appreciating what we have, and telling the people we love that we love them. We all need to feel appreciated and affirmed. It shouldn’t be taken for granted.”

It’s been a difficult year, and it’s natural to be sad about a downsized holiday, current news events, personal issues, or any of the many difficulties 2020 has thrown our way. Cole said it’s important to process those feelings.

“Being grateful doesn’t mean you deny the reality of pain and loss,” he said. “Acknowledging that we feel bummed, unhappy, sad, or distressed is important. The question, then, is ‘who can support you in that? Who can accept your experience and simply be present with you in it?’ You’re not alone. And it’s OK to ask for support. Gratitude can’t be manufactured at the expense of grief or realism. But, it is available, especially when we feel supported. Not all the time, but there are moments, and we can find them.”

Cole suggests reaching out to friends and family on Thanksgiving by phone or video chat to express love and gratitude.

The CDC suggests the following alternatives to in-person family gatherings:

  • Host a virtual Thanksgiving meal with friends and family who don’t live with you
  • Watch television and play games with people in your household
  • Shop online sales the day after Thanksgiving and days leading up to the winter holidays. Use contactless services for purchased items, like curbside pick-up. Shop in open air markets staying six feet away from others and wear a mask.
  • Safely prepare traditional dishes and deliver them to family and neighbors in a way that does not involve contact with others (for example, leave them on the porch).
  • Participate in a gratitude activity, like writing down things you are grateful for and sharing with your friends and family.

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