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Learning to feel grateful this holiday season


by Meredith Mental Health

If you're struggling with the holidays, you're not alone. For many, this season -- and all of the special occasions that come with it -- can bring up difficult issues. In today's blog post, ReachOut intern Whitney shares her thoughts on shifting perspective to cope with the holidays after a tough year.

Feel free to share your suggestions for getting through the holidays in comments. Or, if you need extra support, ask this month's expert in the ReachOut Forums.

If you have had a difficult year, the approach of the holidays can be extremely daunting. If you have lost a loved one, the idea of spending a holiday that celebrates “togetherness” without them can be scary. If your family has had a rough year, being together can make you feel nervous. Overall, the way that the weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year’s make you look back at the rest of the year can make any feelings of loss or disappointment worse.

My name is Whitney, and I am 22 years old. A lot has happened in my life this year. Some things were pretty exciting: I graduated from college and moved to a new city to start a new life. Some things were pretty difficult and unexpected: I lost one of the people closest to me in an accident, and my family suffered trying to cope with one member’s severe mental illness throughout the summer and fall.

Approaching a holiday that celebrates gratitude can be a little daunting if you have had a hard year, and it is hard to think about what you are grateful for when you are in a lot of pain.

Throughout the last year, I have had a lot of bad moments and a lot of bad days. Sometimes feeling grateful for the smallest things is what gets me through the day. But gratitude is hard and takes some work, it involves not only reconsidering your bad feelings, but turning them around to do the work of seeing the good things in your life and saying “thank you” for them.


What exactly is gratitude and why can it be so hard?


Gratitude is generally thought to be an attitude of “thank you” for the good stuff in your life. We usually think of it as a reaction: “If things are good, then I will feel grateful.” Because whenever you are in a situation where you are pressured to feel gratitude, It can feel like just another thing you “should” be.

When someone tells you to look on the bright side, it can make you feel like saying “you just can’t see how hard my life is.” It can feel like other people are not taking you seriously and don’t understand how much it hurts to be going through what you are going through. When you are in a bad situation, there is the temptation to feel like “if I should be grateful, then things in my life should be better.”

But maybe there is a better way to think about it.

Gratitude is a feeling generally accompanied by feelings of happiness. Gratitude feels really good. Side effects may include: feelings of belonging, contentment, and wonder for the beauty of the world around you.

We want to feel gratitude for things going well because we want things to be going well. The problem with thinking of gratitude as something reactive("If things are good, then I will be grateful"), is that it is out of our control. If we wait for the things outside of us to go well before we are grateful for them, that leaves us pretty helpless.

Creating feelings of gratitude

Deciding to try and feel grateful when you are feeling down takes a lot of courage, but is the first step. For me, when I find myself feeling lonely and really sad about the death of my friend, finding something to feel grateful for is like extending my own hand to help myself up.

Some ways to feel more grateful through a tough holiday season:

1. Tell people when you are thinking about them. Spontaneous phone calls/texts/e-mails make people’s days. When you know people feel good because of you, it makes you feel better too. When I get really sad about my friend’s death, I think about how hard every day is for his mother. I call her and tell her how strong she is and how much I love her. Feeling gratitude for my close relationship with his mother and realizing that even at my worst, I can still make her day a little better, helps me feel better.

2. Pay attention to the little things. That cup of coffee? The way the light changes throughout the day? Things your friends say that make you laugh? Feeling gratitude for the small things that make each day better can help you feel more stable during rough times.

3. Think about how you’ve changed - for the better. There’s no doubt that the tough stuff makes us stronger, but think about all the other ways you might have changed in response to it. Are you kinder? Less judgemental of others who might be having a tough time? Do you feel like you understand life a little better? Thinking about how you’ve grown as a person can help you feel better about the tough stuff.

4. Reach out. When you give, you connect with people. Maybe it’s a smile, maybe a “hello”, maybe you want to volunteer this holiday season. When you give your time and your energy freely, other people respond in remarkable ways.

Finally, I hope that in these weeks when you are finishing up the semester and spending lots of time with family, that you can find a moment to feel grateful for the gift of your life. You are special and you are worthy. May your troubles make you wise and your joys make you generous. Happy Holidays!

For more information on coping with the holidays, check out these fact sheets
How to deal with grief and loss during holidays and special occasions
Holidays with your family


About Whitney

Hello all! My name is Whitney Will. I just graduated from St John's College in Santa Fe, where I studied the Great Books. Four years spent reading the authors whose ideas shaped the world I know helped me feel connected to the big picture of what humanity is doing on this one beautiful earth. A few months ago I moved from the mountains to check out life by the ocean while I think about graduate school. I am very excited and very grateful to be interning with Inspire USA and ReachOut.



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