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Remembering that gratitude is a choice

January 1, 2021

As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, December, 30, 2020

Much has changed since January 2020. The global COVID-19 pandemic blindsided us in March, unleashing devastating impacts on the mortality, physical health, mental well-being and economic security of millions. We enter 2021 with a better understanding of how to confront the virus through mask wearing, social distancing, a variety of medical treatments and new vaccines that are reportedly 95% effective. Still, we are living in difficult times where increased levels of uncertainty, hypervigilance and anxiety have become the new normal. 

To cope with these challenges, our family has found it more important than ever to practice gratitude. Pausing to share that for which we are grateful is a family habit we have cultivated over the years. Over evening meals, at weeks-end, during holidays and birthdays, and as we celebrate the close of one year and set intentions for the next, we affirm the goodness we have experienced, however big or small. Generally, these sentiments are easily and genuinely expressed, other times require extra commitment and effort, including these past months when hardship has been especially prevalent. 

During these challenging times I’ve been drawn to, and heartened by, a growing conversation about the benefits of gratitude as reflected in a variety of magazines, books, blog posts, and podcasts. One  particular book that now sits next to my workstation, is The Gratitude Project:  How the science of thankfulness can rewire our brains for resilience, optimism, and the greater good. The book includes a host of short chapters written by a diverse collection of authors and sorted into sections such as, The Impact of Gratitude, How to Be Grateful, How to Be a Grateful Family and How to Foster Gratefulness Around You.

The big take-away for me is to remember that gratitude is a choice, one that is always available to us, no matter the circumstances in which we find ourselves. The authors cite a growing collection of studies revealing that the more we choose gratitude, the more we experience a range of benefits, including increased happiness, life satisfaction and other positive emotions. Regular expressions of gratitude, it is reported, also provide relief to those struggling with anxiety and depression, improves the quality of our relationships with loved ones, coworkers and neighbors, and can even lead to greater success with achieving goals.

One particular expression of gratitude is to first affirm there is goodness in the world, including the benefits and gifts that one has received, and, second, to attribute that goodness to another person or higher power. I find this format especially useful in connecting my own experience to the actions of others, as I reflect on that for which I am grateful in 2020.

First, with fewer sports and social gatherings, combined with more online school and working from home, we share many more meals together as a family. I’m especially grateful that our 14 and 11 year old Zoe and Adam are becoming proud and accomplished cooks and bakers, too, making our meals more a group experience.

I’m grateful for the joy our family has experienced from adopting a family dog and I’m especially grateful that my wife, Lori, persisted with her desire to welcome a puppy into our family, even after years of me opposing the idea.

I’m grateful that as a family we have been even more physically active outdoors than usual. I appreciate that we have worked together to prioritize more walks, hikes, backyard meals, and even a two week camping trip, when closures and travel restrictions limited other options.

And I’m grateful for the reminder that the simple act of expressing genuine gratitude, especially in the face of so much hardship, helps the world look a bit brighter. It’s a silver lining from 2020 worth remembering throughout the coming year.

For more resources on gratitude, visit the Greater Good Society at greatergood.berkeley.edu.

John Engel of Florence can be reached through his website fatherhoodjourney.com.

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