With global tragedies looming, inflation rising, and the state of our collective mental health at a peak of fragility, the importance of kindness and gratitude in procuring our individual and community wellness has never been more critical as we prepare to gather for this Thanksgiving holiday.
Traditionally, research has shown that societal expectations of a joyous and family-filled holiday season paired with individual feelings of emotional difficulty can put a strain on a person’s mental health. During the Thanksgiving holiday many people become overwhelmed with feelings of hopelessness, despair, ruminating thoughts, and loneliness. Collaboratively these feelings during the holidays often contribute to increased reports of depression, anxiety, and other mental health disorders.
While there are many who can look forward to time with loved ones, there are those who are reminded of lost ones and besotted with grief. While some can luxuriate in plans to see family, there are those whose families are an untethered source of chronic and unprocessed pain. The time surrounding Thanksgiving is further complicated by media news outlets, commercials, and social media timelines that all romanticize the idea of a happy Thanksgiving. However, the gap between holiday expectations and a person’s difficult reality is one that can illuminate a brief but intense period of suffering.
There are many things that we can all do to buffer against the decline of our mental health this Thanksgiving. But less often discussed is the role of gratitude and kindness as a pathway to improved mental health.
Derived from the Latin word “gratus,” meaning pleasing or thankful, gratitude is scientifically proven to evoke feelings of joy, bliss, optimism, self-satisfaction, improved mood, and even true happiness. Practicing kindness, on the other hand, fosters mutual benefits for both self and others. Specifically, the theory of Positive Psychology notes that kindness promotes empathy and encourages people to be more altruistic, compassionate, and tolerant, which results in feelings of fulfillment.
The easiest way to practice gratitude is with a gratitude journal. If you need an official gratitude journal with prompts, they can be purchased online for little cost. Alternatively, if you already have a journal and wish to incorporate gratitude, you can simply respond to these two prompts daily:
- List three experiences that happened today for which you are grateful.
- List three experiences that happened today that made you laugh or smile.
For beginners, consider starting this exercise by listing one experience and working your way up to three. If feelings of anxiety and sadness feel like barriers to finding things to be grateful for, consider pulling from the basics of your daily life, like waking up this morning, breathing the fresh air, getting out of the house, the beautiful trees outside, a tasty meal, or a funny video or meme that made you chuckle. Looking back and finding experiences that supported your well-being encourage you to be more grounded in the present as the day unfolds. When you are more grounded in the present it helps to counteract feelings of depression and anxiety that are rooted in worries of the past and fears of the future.
For those with children, gratitude can also be a family exercise exchanged at dinner time or bedtime and handed down to the next generation as a tool of resilience.
To incorporate more kindness, remember that the opportunity to be kind to self and others is never absent. Acts of kindness can happen in myriad ways including:
- Holding the door open for somebody.
- Saying thank you.
- Letting someone else go first.
- Asking someone about their day.
- Checking on a friend who is struggling.
- Leaving your mailman a thank-you note for the holidays.
- Sending a positive message to a loved one to let them know you are thinking of them.
- Buying flowers for someone who does not expect them and rarely gets them.
- Smiling or saying hello to someone new.
- Buying someone’s coffee.
- Donating to those in need.
During a mentally challenging holiday period like Thanksgiving, engaging in acts that encompass gratitude and kindness can feel burdensome and out of reach. However, individuals are encouraged to scale their incorporation of gratitude and kindness to acts that are smaller and realistically attainable. Fortunately, the benefits of gratitude and kindness are not contingent on grandiosity; they require only an intention to be kind and grateful in exchange for access to joy and fulfillment.
In addition to pursuing gratitude and kindness for mental health, individuals can also reach out to members of their support system for company and comfort or read self-help books that give advice on how to navigate grief and despair. Another consideration would be to join a support group for individuals who struggle during the holidays, or to seek the consistent support of a mental health professional.
Anyone can reap the benefits of “thanks” and “giving” this holiday season, even if their reality is not picturesque. Making room for your mental health during Thanksgiving is possible if you take small, simple steps that harness gratitude and kindness. While these are not cure-alls for the difficulties that a person faces during the holiday season, their benefits are invaluable and could truly enhance the landscape of one’s mental and emotional well-being.