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Finding and Practicing Gratitude in the New Year

By Mary Pettigrew

The new year has rolled in and yet, 2022 feels a bit like déjà vu in comparison to last year, only more magnified. We’re still living in pandemic times, faced with political unrest and feeling vulnerable to the unknown.

As all of us rang in the New Year a few days ago, I took a few moments to sit quietly in reflection of what was, what is, and what will be. I took stock of all the darkness, mistakes, and uncomfortable experiences I’ve encountered and endured over the years. Instead of wallowing in negative thoughts about the past, I chose to embrace my survival and celebrate my capacity to become resilient in such difficult times. With that, I raised a glass and gave a toast … to me. I urge you all to do the same because you deserve it.
Over the holidays, I watched a film on Netflix called Don’t Look Up. The film satirizes modern life, skewers media, politics and the culture of fame and celebrity. Without giving away any spoilers, all I can say is this film had a powerful, emotional effect on me. Looking through social media comments from others who also watched the film, I discovered I was not alone. The filmmakers wanted the viewers to think about what they were watching. They wanted us to see the underlying message as it pertains to society and humanity, and they wanted us to feel a certain way. In this aspect, they succeeded. Holocaust survivor, writer, and humanistic psychologist, Viktor Frankl once coined the phrase, “tragic optimism” as a way to describe the search for meaning amid the inevitable tragedies of human existence. I find this to be a powerful observation.

I’ve been thinking about a lot of things since watching the film and my resolve is to learn something from everything. My resolve is to continue to grow from difficult times and to have a greater appreciation for life, relationships, spirituality, creativity, to always search for meaning and purpose, and to be grateful. 

In recent years, scientists have begun to recognize that the practice of gratitude can be a key driver of post-traumatic growth after an adverse event, and that gratitude can be a healing force. A good number of positive mental-health outcomes can be linked to regular gratitude practice, such as reduced lifetime risk for depression, anxiety, and substance-abuse disorders. 

There is a notable distinction between gratitude (momentary) and gratefulness (an overall state of mind). Gratitude as a fleeting emotion can come and go, but gratefulness can pervade your entire life, throughout its ups and downs.

Lilian Jans-Beken and psychologist Paul Wong created the Existential Gratitude Scale. Their scale includes items such as:
  • I am grateful for my life even in times of suffering
  • I am grateful that my inner resources have increased as a result of overcoming adversities.
  • I am grateful for the people in my life, even for those who have caused me much pain.
  • I am thankful that I have something to live for, even though life has been very hard for me.
  • I am grateful that every crisis represents an opportunity for me to grow.
  • I have learned the importance of gratitude through suffering.

The researchers found that existential gratitude was linked to a higher level of overall wellness and quality of life. Additional findings have shown how an increase in gratitude and spirituality can be protective factors against both anxiety and depression.

Sometimes we go through periods of regression in our healing journeys and that’s okay. That’s life – the ups and downs and the good and not so good. Sit with negative emotions, don’t push them away. This is how we grow. Feel what you need to feel and express these feelings as you see fit. It’s okay to be angry, to grieve, to be frustrated. These feelings are valid, so feel them. Only you get to determine how you feel. 

Think about where you were in years past. Think about how you started this year and where you are now. Maybe your situation is worse off than it was when you began 2021. Maybe it’s better. Regardless, this past year has been pivotal in the creation of who you are, and you should be proud of such accomplishments no matter how big or small.

I know at times it might not feel like you’ve made any progress, but you have. You’re learning new coping skills. You’re being kinder to yourself, setting boundaries and finding a way to find patience when dealing with other circumstances or people in your world. 

Maybe surviving is all you’ve done this year, that’s okay. If all you did this year was make it to the next day, bravo! So, when you get frustrated about things you didn’t do, goals you couldn’t meet, remind yourself of everything you did accomplish and give yourself a pat on the back. Because you are enough. You are more than enough, so give yourself the credit you deserve.

A toast to the old you:

If you feel inspired to use the new year to help you reset or change habits, great. And yet, the old you has survived every terrible day, every hard thing, every awful circumstance and every heartbreak you’ve ever felt (in that moment). The old you is a fighter and that’s worth celebrating!

Happy New Year 2022