Being Grateful—Even When Your Family’s Driving You Bananas

The holiday season can come with added stress and difficulty, which makes it a great time to practice gratitude
By Aaron Jarden, University of Melbourne

The holiday season can be a stressful time of year. You will blow your budget, your relatives will annoy you, and you’ll receive gifts that go straight to charity.

Meanwhile, your friends post pictures on social media of their idyllic vacations, yearly accomplishments, and super happy toddlers and cats. You may feel extra stress from not accomplishing all the goals you set at the start of the year. You feel this stress in the face of other people’s overt jolliness.

So how can the science of gratitude help you enjoy the ups and downs of the festive season?

Remind Me Again, What Is Gratitude?

Gratitude, in short, is a strong feeling of appreciation toward someone who’s helped you. You can also feel gratitude when you make a habit of noticing and appreciating the positives in life. This might be feeling grateful for a cooling breeze on a hot day, the skills you’ve learned in the kitchen, or circumstances that have led to a good life.

Over the past 20 years or so, there has been quite a bit of research on gratitude.

Some of our own research shows that older people are more grateful than younger people, and shows it’s possible to become more grateful with practice.

How Can Gratitude Help Me?

Practicing gratitude can have many positive impacts, including an increased sense of well-being and life satisfaction, positive emotional functioning such as more pleasurable emotions and thoughts that life is going well, increased optimism, a sense of connectedness, improved relationships, and more and better quality sleep.

So all in all, researchers really get quite excited about all the positive things gratitude is related to.

There is also research indicating that gratitude can help increase resilience and help us cope with everyday life stress, as well as with more major adversities.

Gratitude can help with our mental health, like a depressed mood or post-traumatic stress disorder, and can help us cope with loss after trauma.

How Can I Use Gratitude?

So if you want a buffer against those annoying relatives and blown budgets, and to be more resilient to life’s stressors, develop a greater sense of gratitude.

Among the many ways researchers have tested, you can:

  • Write a thank you note for a gift or behavior you’ve appreciated. It doesn’t have to be a handwritten letter. You can express gratitude via text, email, or social media.
  • Visit someone and thank them in person.
  • Keep a daily journal of things you feel grateful for. Write down three things at the end of the day as well as your role in bringing about the three things.
  • Spend time contemplating being grateful for certain activities, such as having a family or friends to spend Christmas with, or opening presents with children. In other words, thinking about being grateful is also helpful, not just the act of being grateful.

Hang On a Minute. Surely It’s Not That Simple

However, there are also a few tricks, twists, and turns to be aware of:

  • Consider cultural nuances: Someone’s culture can influence how they perceive and react to gratitude. For example, in East Asian and Indian cultures, receiving gratitude can be accompanied by feelings of indebtedness or guilt. This can put pressure on people to reciprocate. This can also be true, but not to the same extent, in Western cultures.
  • Gratitude is not for everything: Gratitude is not the panacea to all stresses of life; it helps, but it doesn’t cure. It should also not be used to distract from real issues and problems, especially in interpersonal relationships.
  • Think about when you use it: Be purposeful and strategic about expressing gratitude, and don’t overdose on it. Start with the people who help you the most and are the most meaningful to you.
  • Don’t forget yourself: Show gratitude toward yourself as well as others, such as being grateful for some of your strengths and capabilities.

If You Can’t Be Grateful …

With all the best will in the world, it can be difficult to be grateful for the same present from Aunt Betty three years in a row. In this case, our only advice is to grin and bear it rather than to pretend to be grateful. You will feel better and so will she.

 is an associate professor at the Centre for Positive Psychology at Melbourne Graduate School of Education at The University of Melbourne in Australia. This article was first published on The Conversation.

RECOMMENDED