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Are you finding it hard to be grateful this year? We are, after all, in the midst of a global pandemic that has claimed well over a million lives worldwide. And has changed many aspects of our personal, economic and political lives.
So it’s understandable if gratitude seems more difficult to express than ever. We feel more ready to express gratitude after a problem has been solved, after a gift has been received, after we’ve faced the struggle and survived it. But research suggests that if we wait to express gratitude until the end of a struggle, we miss its true power.
Gratitude Helps Us Foster Resilience
It is during — not after — a crisis that we stand to benefit most from gratitude. This is because, like other positive emotions, gratitude helps us “broaden and build.” First, it broadens our available set of mental and emotional resources, keeping us resilient. Secondly, it helps us build a network of people who can provide the support, creativity, and collaboration we need during dark times.
For example, a recent study revealed that grateful firefighters are better equipped to perform well over the long term. Gratitude brings firefighters the shift in perspective, positive emotions, and social connections they need to withstand the effects of sustained stress, trauma, and hardships. Researchers have made similar discoveries among mental health professionals, athletes, and teachers.
Seeing the Good — and the Bad
Are these firefighters, mental health professionals, athletes, and teachers simply engaging in naive optimism or positive thinking? The answer is no. Gratitude doesn’t require them to ignore the serious difficulties — even tragedies — they encounter by declaring “This is fine” when nothing could be further from the truth. Instead, they simply recognize that the bad they see is not the whole story.
From a psychological perspective, “bad is stronger than good.” Sometimes the fact that we are “wired for bad” helps us. We manage to survive and thrive only by attending to possible threats and dangers. Too much attention to what’s bad, however, is bad for us. Instead of helping us, it undermines our quest to overcome the very problems it helps us recognize.
Here are a few ways to tap into gratitude without becoming “Pollyannaish” along the way:
Make gratitude authentic.
True gratitude is not a quick fix. It is more than just “looking on the bright side” to “raise your spirits” through a quick boost of positive emotion. Gratitude is most effective when we make it a personal, intentional habit. When we express our gratitude to others, we should avoid speaking transactionally. Recent research by Yoobin Park and her colleagues suggests that we prefer to be thanked by hearing about how we’ve helped others and how we’ve met their needs. This is more important than having others recognize how much it cost us.
Reinvent the simple practices you may have lost.
The pandemic has disrupted our informal ways of sharing gratitude. A quick verbal or written “Thank you,” a high five, a pat on the back — these have all evaporated due to social distancing and remote work. But this doesn't have to stop us from sharing gratitude. In fact, it is a good opportunity to be more intentional and to recognize the ways you’ve likely failed to say “Thank you” in the past.
Look for the helpers — and become one.
Some initial research on reactions to COVID-19 suggests that those who are most committed to gratitude also are those most likely to take positive actions to help others during the pandemic. Researchers find that grateful people are more likely to perform the “small individual actions such as wearing a mask, employing self-quarantine, and practicing social distancing” that can “go a long way in helping contain the number of COVID-19 cases.”
Fred Rogers famously shared this advice his mother gave him when he was a child: “Whenever there would be any catastrophe, she would say, ‘Always look for the helpers.’” Taking the time to see these helpers is not necessarily, as some have suggested, a way of getting ourselves off the hook. In fact, by recognizing and thanking the “helpers” who are making a difference in our (and others’) lives, we will be better equipped to become helpers ourselves.
Brett Beasley, Ph.D., is the Associate Director of the Notre Dame Deloitte Center for Ethical Leadership at the Mendoza College of Business, where he also teaches courses in communication and business ethics.