“Graduation is canceled, we can’t fly home to visit family in Texas, and no, school won’t be in person this year.” I say this fast to my teenage daughter, bracing myself for her reaction. She shrugs her shoulders, a resignation settling into her arms and legs, as she walks away and her bedroom door slams.
I understand her anger and melancholy. We are practicing a different vocabulary in 2020, with words such as social distancing, pandemic, masks and covid-19 — terms that may have sounded dystopian before this year. The jerky roller-coaster ride has meant making cancellations, juggling multiple roles and sacrificing normalcy.
To cope with the swirling uncertainty, I’ve continued my gratitude practice. For the past four years, every morning, I write five specific moments of gratitude. Some entries focus on the mundane, such as my morning coffee, while some focus on weightier moments — gratitude about a family member making it through a complicated medical procedure. This consistent practice has offered a balm and a conscious choice to alter my perspective.
Experts weigh in on gratitude and mind-set shifting
“It is essential to remember gratitude is a choice, not an emotion,” says Robert A. Emmons, a psychology professor at the University of California at Davis and an expert on the science of gratitude. Gratitude develops from two stages of information processing: affirming and recognizing. “The attitude of gratefulness is the ability to feel grateful regardless of circumstances. This is unconditional or non-targeted gratitude," Emmons said. "It is a core aspect of resilience, helpful in times of crisis.”
The idea of resilience is an important one, especially in the pandemic. “There’s nothing unusual about struggling right now, but try to focus on whatever small things that you can control, and then take hold of them,” says Angela Duckworth, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance.” In her classes, she asks students to do a five-minute favor, in which students do something good for someone else for five minutes. This exercise is particularly helpful during the pandemic. “Even though you can’t control vaccine production, spikes of the virus and the rate of hospitalizations, as well as many other things, you can control doing something nice for five minutes for another person.”
Turning your attention to gratitude doesn’t necessarily mean you’re always putting things in perspective. “You’re simply choosing to redirect your attention to the positive aspects of your life, so you don’t take them for granted,” says Sonja Lyubomirsky, distinguished professor of psychology at the University of California at Riverside and author of “The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want.”
Ways parents are practicing gratitude during the pandemic
Kristina Schnack Kotlus, a two-time brain cancer survivor and mom to three (17, 14 and 13), knows how to turn toward gratitude in a crisis situation. “It’s been my experience in dealing with cancer and the covid shutdown that stress and gratitude work against each other, which means that I can use thankfulness or gratitude to combat stress and anxiety,” she says.
She focuses on gratitude by journaling daily, leaning on family or friends, harnessing her inner child by looking at things with childlike wonder, and celebrating small things such as a phone call from a friend, walking outside in the sunshine or eating a favorite meal. Her mantra is “focus on what you are grateful for in the present, which can immediately lift the heavy weight of the past and uncertainty of the future.”
A gratitude practice doesn’t have to be complicated. “At bedtime every single day, we all share what we’re grateful for, and it helps to remember the big and little things, like we have food to eat or a friend being nice,” says Jennifer Chen of Los Angeles, a mother of 4-year-old twins. “We use the Calm app for a short, daily, kid-friendly meditation at bedtime, too, and one of the meditations is thinking about things that you are thankful for. At the end of hard days, taking a few minutes to think about gratitude resets all of us.”
Gratitude can focus attention on the benefits of extra time at home with the family. “As a mom, I have found quarantine is helping us value family time, setting up routines that are more streamlined than driving around town,” says Emily W. King, a child psychologist in Raleigh, N.C., and mother of two boys, ages 7 and 13. “Our family notices that we are a ‘team’ around the house and in our neighborhood.”
Other parents faced different challenges. Lisa Walker, mom of two, moved from Boston to Vermont at the height of the pandemic earlier this year.
Her youngest son, Myles, is now in fifth grade. “It’s been a really tough transition for him, starting a new school, only going in person two days a week and trying to make new friends amidst a global pandemic,” she says. His negativity was constant. “To get him into a better head space, my husband started ‘The Good Book,’ which sits on our kitchen island. Every day, Myles has to write down one good thing he is looking forward to, and at the end of every day, one good thing that happened that day.” Walker says “The Good Book” has been a game-changer. Now, the entire family names one good thing that happened to them every day.
Recognizing good things in day-to-day life is what Shannon Brescher Shea in the D.C. area emphasizes with her two boys, ages 4 and 7. “Once the pandemic hit, we learned to show gratitude for the things immediately surrounding us. As our world shrunk, we didn’t focus on what we lost. Instead, we learned to take a closer look at what we had,” she says. “This was especially true of the joys we found in nature. My children identified plants in the yard, picking enough dandelions to make dandelion jelly. We also found joy in old-school games of tag and hide-and-seek around our house. The pandemic has reinforced that so much of true gratitude is finding the beauty in the things that you would otherwise take for granted.”
What parents can teach their children about gratitude
Emmons suggests the easiest way for parents to teach children about gratitude is to model it themselves. “Parents can also watch for grateful behavior in their kids, identify it when it happens, reinforce them for it and stress the relational function of gratitude — going beyond the politeness function,” he says. Equally important is for parents to instruct children to appreciate the damage that ingratitude can cause. Role-playing can be effective here, Emmons says.
Duckworth emphasizes that it is important to call attention to the good things in your life. Parents can adopt the “three blessings” exercise for their kids and themselves: “Remember three good things that happened to you in the last 24 hours.” This exercise can be done in the morning or any other time of day. This eventually becomes a habit, and attention will be automatically directed toward what is positive.
What to say to yourself when you’re in crisis mode
In a crisis situation, Emmons says, “I try to forecast my future gratitude — what I call prospective gratitude. If you’re struggling with feeling gratitude in a current situation, project yourself into the future, and imagine how grateful you’ll be when your circumstances change.”
In his experience, this has been powerful for people during the pandemic. “It’s a defiant attitude that insists that gratitude is the best approach to life, no matter what,” he says. “No matter what.”
Rudri Bhatt Patel is a former lawyer turned writer and editor. You can find more of her work at rudribhattpatel.com.
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