The compounding trauma — the ambiguity of the pandemic, the chronic stress and fear without a definite end in sight, the experiences of loss at a scale unfathomable, the racially-motivated murders, the police brutality and community violence, the sociopolitical divisiveness, the misinformation and lies, and the disasters natural and man. We saw our nation at its worst in 2020. Not surprisingly, many Americans feel broken, anxious, depleted and longing — if not grieving — for the everyday lives we once knew. 

We need healing. And healing begins here — in the "other" story of 2020.  

This year also saw the nation come together to fight COVID-19 on the front lines, and we are still witnessing our heroic medical professionals selflessly putting themselves at risk in the service of our families. We saw tens of thousands of essential workers showing up each day to support our country. We saw educators and school leaders tirelessly innovating and championing the academic, social, and emotional support of our nation’s children. We saw all the creative ways we found to stay in touch and support our neighbors and families. We felt our strength as a nation, born of crisis, adapt to a never ending, always changing way of living day to day. We recognized the discrimination and drivers of inequities embedded in our systems, and we’ve mobilized to dismantle it. We saw record voter turnout across every demographic that makes up the beautiful diversity that is our nation. 

Much to be grateful for.

Thanksgiving is right on time. Even if we are eating alone, even if we are missing our every-year traditions, even if this holiday is the first to reflect the losses of this last year, there is so much to be grateful for. Not surprisingly, although we albeit are eager to return to our "normal," many Americans feel closer to family and friends and community now more than ever before; the wholly collective experiences of 2020 have created deeper bonds in relationships, with the potential to restore our community unity. In tough times like now, taking this moment to practice gratitude can help us find perspective, help us remember there is more than the restrictions going on around us, and remind us to appreciate all those we’d love to hold closer.  

Gratitude is a healing and supportive emotion. In fact, living gratitude and expressing our thankfulness leads to a myriad of positive feelings, positive relational moments, and empowers us to move through difficulty and flourish.  

Gratitude is a warm and positive feeling. Gratitude leads to a simple and powerful "this is for everyone" expression of appreciation we can each engage in. Gratitude will support reconnecting and help us to express appreciation for those we love and for those who care for us, who we don’t even know. Gratitude can enable the conditions to repair the relationships between us and to restore our communities. We recommend this practice — in the way we speak, in the lens we look through, in our openhearted embrace of others. 

Gratitude is a state of mind. Choose to see it and you will immediately feel the warmth and fortune of your existence, interactions and experience. Unlike other forms of wealth, gratitude is free and does not discriminate. Expressions of gratitude during this tumultuous time will undoubtedly look as different as the impact of the trauma of this year have been felt across every household in America, but to each of us, these sentiments are significant and enriching.    

Hey thanks! I appreciate you. Grateful for your help here. Thanks for being you. I give thanks for you in my life daily. Wow, so grateful that you took the time here. 

Now more than ever. 

Gratitude is associated with positive mental health and life outcomes. People who are grateful experience on average more positive emotions, such as enthusiasm, joy, and love; and thriving through a pandemic requires a healthy mental flexibility that is best accessed when we are experiencing on average more pleasant than unpleasant emotions, enabling resilience both during and after traumatic events.

Gratitude can buffer against lingering in the experience of destructive emotions like envy, greed and bitterness. For many, there is a lot to be angry about this year — more now than ever before. As a nation we are rotating through the stages of grief — shock, anger, acceptance, repeat. Further, rates of depression, substance abuse and suicide are climbing alongside heightened anxiety, which is at an all-time high across every age group in the country. Gratitude can further reduce the risk for depression, anxiety and substance abuse disorders and has demonstrated success clinically to support treatment and healing. People who experience gratitude cope better with stress, recover more quickly from illness, and enjoy more robust physical health, including lower blood pressure and better immune function.  

In fact, an early look at findings from data our colleagues at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, Yale University, collected in October from a nationally representative sample of educators across the country found that gratitude was the top coping strategy that predicted positive emotional well-being (higher positive emotions, lower negative emotions, higher job satisfaction, lower burnout, fewer intentions to quit). These findings are especially critical given the chronic stressful conditions of the nation's teachers during this unprecedented school year. Gratitude can also help you to see that there is indeed still good in the world around you at a time when there is mounting uncertainty and suffering.

But, how can we possibly be grateful during this time?  

Think about it — this experience has made the invisible, visible. Our everyday experiences have been overhauled — our too-busy routines halted in their tracks. In psychology, an experience becomes automatic and habituated when you have repeatedly experienced it to the point that your brain no longer needs you to actively attend to it.

This past year demanded us to stop and pay attention.

Cultivating gratitude requires attending to your world and your experiences therein.

We have experienced the tremendous loss of in-person human interaction. Our experience has left us longing for everyday social interactions that now seem so precious. The touch of someone’s hand, leaning into a conversation over lunch with a friend, a handshake, a hug as a greeting (seems unthinkable now!). Technology — particularly the explosion of Zoom calls — is our witness to our new found appreciation for connecting to the people in our lives. 

We are grateful for the power of technologies that connect us during this socially distanced time. Grateful for our access and bandwidth and literacy to navigate these modalities to support intimate interactions from our homes in real time.  

How can we not be grateful? 

At a time when essential workers would give anything to be able to be home with their loved ones, we are grateful for the gifts we’ve been given to be home. As parents we have been given the gift of witnessing our children move through milestones in our presence. Watching our children turn into students on this side of the screen. We are grateful for every time we hear the exclamation "MOM!" For every conversation we get to have with our kids, even the tough ones. For every “I am not quite rolling my eyes” look we get when we tell them something that they don’t want to hear. 

We are grateful for our newfound connections with our local communities — meeting neighbors, seeing the seasons change in real time. We are grateful for the opportunities to connect with teachers and families in ways previously unavailable. We are grateful for the opportunity to recognize our differences, and committed to work together to dismantle systemic inequities and restore our commitments to our common humanity so we can all grow forward, together.  

We are even grateful for the exhaustion. Grateful for the exhaustion of being home for every meal, and to have food to put on our table to enjoy together. Grateful for the opportunity to teach our children to practice this gratitude and come together for others in our communities who do not have this comfort. We are grateful for every moment our child rushes to us to tell a story we heard many times — and, we listen because they need to tell it, even when we’re so exhausted we can hardly think straight. 

At this time when so much may feel out of our control and weigh heavily on our hearts and minds, try gratitude. We do everyday. Here are some practices we and many others find meaningful and positively contagious. This is the season to try one on:

- Speak about your gratitude regularly — elevate it’s importance in family conversations

- Create your own gratitude saying/phrase for the month or find one that inspires you. Invite family members or co-workers to do the same  

- At the end of each day silently give gratitude to those who brought joy into your life that day (we love this one particularly)

- Choose to be thankful for something or someone new, an easy way to recognize and honor all the essential workers in our lives 

- Express your gratitude regularly and notice how it makes you and the other feel.

By taking time to reflect and express gratitude for the moments and people in your life, you have the power to move yourself and your family through this difficult time and flourish. 

Robin Stern, Ph.D. is the Co-founder and Associate Director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, a psychoanalyst in practice and the Goodwill Ambassador for United Nations Women for Peace. Robin is the proud mother of two adult children and five stepchildren who in pursuing their own passions are contributing to making the world a better place. 

Christina Cipriano, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor in the Yale Child Study Center and Director of Research at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. Chris is the proud mother of four beautiful children who remind her daily to take the moon and make it shine for everyone. Learn more about her research at drchriscip.com and follow her @drchriscip

Published on Nov 23, 2020