Tis’ the season! With the holidays just around the corner, it is sometimes tricky to not get caught up in the glitz and glam of holiday parties, gifts and decorating. For this week’s blog post, I encourage you to pull up a chair, grab some tea or a glass of wine, and get comfy! My dear friend, Dr. Heidi Edmunds, a licensed professional counselor and Vice President for Academic Services at Eastern Wyoming Community College, shares some ideas and tactile practices to express gratitude this season (and all year long). Have a read….
Thanksgiving is just a few short days away, and with its approach comes a reminder to slow down and count our blessings. While this is typically a joyous time, it does not come without stress and hardship. Moms who may already feel overwhelmed by the daily work of motherhood—now compounded by the “No School” days and extra work or travel associated with the holidays—can become positively buried. Pressure to “treasure every moment” of motherhood and appreciate our kids when they are XYZ-ages because we will someday miss this stage seems to increase in direct relation to the proximity of our day of thanks; mom guilt can hit hard.
It is carefully, then, that I approach the topic of gratitude. I know how easily we judge ourselves when the days grow long, frustration sets in, and we don’t feel particularly fortunate to be deep in the trenches of motherhood. Whenever I have these thoughts, I know the sharp stabs of guilt and ungratefulness are quick to follow. But what if you could quite simply reduce those negative feelings and, moreover, increase positive emotions too? (If it seems too good to be true, it is—I know nothing is quite simple when you are a mom!). I also know that suggesting moms who already juggle a million tasks every day add should another job to the list could seem quite ridiculous. There is currently quite a lot of talk about self-care, stepping back, and saying no as a way to free yourself from some of the pressures of motherhood. I’m proposing something a bit different as a way to increase happiness in your daily life.
Let’s again consider Thanksgiving—a day dedicated to showing appreciation and giving thanks. The case for extending these practices beyond a mere day or even month is strong. In fact, increasing research shows that expressing gratitude can directly impact one’s happiness. Dr. Robert A. Emmons of the University of California, Davis, and Dr. Michael E. McCullough of the University of Miami are some of the preeminent researchers studying the connection between gratitude and happiness. Additionally, Dr. Martin E. P. Seligman, of the University of Pennsylvania, who is generally recognized as a founder of the school of thought known as Positive Psychology, explored how the act of expressing gratitude impacted happiness. Both sets of researchers found that adding simple acts of gratitude into peoples’ daily lives increased their happiness, optimism, and even physical health. Emmons and McCullough were able, through continued study, to narrow down the frequency and duration one must practice gratitude in order to impact happiness. In this case, they asked study participants to spend a short period of time each day writing about something for which they were grateful. After three weeks, keeping these so-called gratitude journals resulted in participants reporting a more positive mood compared to participants who wrote about either negative or neutral events.
While I am all about increasing positive emotions, journaling has never quite worked for me, especially doing it every day. Pretty soon, daily writing starts to feel like a homework assignment, I feel resentful of the extra work, and throw in the towel. If it sounds appealing to you, or you already journal or write, consider adding a brief acknowledgment of gratitude in your writing in order to increase your positive emotions. There is no length requirement, and small things count as much as the big ones (recognizing time to shower or five minutes of quiet time is just as impactful as giving thanks for the food on your table). You might think about events, people, experiences, and situations for which you are grateful and have contributed to or served you in some manner.
I have always been slightly more intrigued by a study in which Seligman asked participants to think of someone who deserved thanks and then write and personally deliver a letter of gratitude to them. This practice had a greater impact on happiness than any of the other interventions he tested, and the positive effects on participants lasted nearly a month. I’ve replicated parts of this study in a Psychology of Adjustment course I’ve taught over several semesters. Students reported similar increases in positive emotion. An interesting note from my own experience—my students were only asked to deliver a portion of the letters they wrote so were able to extend their gratitude to people with whom they are not in contact with or who may have even died. While no means scientific, the benefit to students, which they self-reported, was clear.
I’m drawn to the practice of writing gratitude letters not only because it feels less tedious to me, but because it seems especially well-suited to moms. So many days are hard, but at the same time, so many people are with us and behind us in motherhood. The nurses and doctors who care for us and our babies, the grandparents, aunts, and uncles who help us learn to parent, the partners who work alongside us, the fellow moms who lead us to grow or just provide a caring ear, and the daycare providers and educators who love and enrich our children—they are the village (or at least a small part of it). By explicitly acknowledging the gratitude you likely feel for any of the people who support you as a mom, you not only honor them but benefit yourself from the simple act. I know writing a letter—and especially reading it aloud or delivering it in person—may feel intimidating. Approach it in a way that feels somewhat comfortable to you. It may take a couple of tries before your words feel adequate (they are) or you don’t feel embarrassed (don’t). As with the gratitude journal, there is no perfect form—handwritten or email, no fancy words or thesaurus needed. Just use your own words and be you. Don’t worry if it seems too short or too long. Deliver it. And be happy.
-Heidi Edmunds, EdD, LPC
LinkedIn: Heidi Edmunds
Emmons, R. A., & McCullough, M. E. (2003). Counting blessings versus burdens: An experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 377-389. doi:10.1037/0022-35184.108.40.2067
Seligman, M.E., Steen, T.A., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist, 60(4): 410-421. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.60.5.410