By Kelly Wright
Aren’t our “2020 Grief and Devastation Bingo Cards” full by now? Trips canceled, calendars emptied, life as we know it halted. At our house, my son’s senior year of high school vanished in March–plans for prom, graduation, and all the usual senior activities gone in a blink. And now months later we’ve added election exhaustion, rising COVID-19 numbers, and virtual school for the rest of the semester. Honestly, are any of us looking forward to the holidays?
In this season – and honestly year – of disappointments and devastation, I want to encourage us to fight for gratitude. Yes, I said fight. I know we are worn out and done with 2020, but gratitude is worth the battle. Now, I’m not advocating putting our head in the sand or taking on a “positive mindset only” kind of gratitude. This would deny that we have any negative emotions. But I am suggesting creating an intentional space for holding both the many griefs of this past year as well as the many things to be grateful. This is where we need to put on our emotional boxing gloves. Gratitude gets overcome and pushed out because the grief part comes more naturally. Negative emotions and events are easier to identify and research shows that negativity has a greater impact on our brains than positive ones. Psychologists refer to this as the negativity bias, and it has a powerful effect on your behavior, your decisions, and even your relationships. It also leads you to pay more attention to the bad things that happen, making them seem more important than they really are. See if these sound familiar to your experience: Remember that one performance review when your supervisor shared that one thing they wanted you to work on, but you can’t recall the handful of positive affirmations shared? Remember the word you misspelled in the school spelling bee, but can’t remember the other words you spelled correctly? Remember that one embarrassing moment in school so vividly you can recall the scene in detail? That’s the power of negativity bias.
Even though bad things seize our attention and stay stuck in our memories, gratitude is the antidote to the negativity bias. Gratitude is worth the fight because it actually has super powers physically, emotionally, and socially. Well, maybe not actual super powers, but gratitude does help us have stronger immune systems, lower blood pressure, helps us sleep longer and feel more rested, exercise more and take better care of ourselves, experience positive emotions, keeps us awake and alert, contributes to more generosity and compassion with others, helps us be more outgoing, more forgiving, and feel less lonely. Gratitude is definitely worth fighting for!
So what is gratitude? Robert Emmons, a leading scientific expert on gratitude, suggests that gratitude has two components. He writes the first component is that gratitude is an affirmation of goodness. Life is imperfect and there is goodness in life. Gratitude holds that tension.
Take for instance my friends who have elementary age kids going back to virtual school. The tension to be held is the disappointment of virtual school and the goodness that the kids were able to attend school in person for a brief time. In our son’s case, I held the grief of his graduation being canceled with the goodness that he was able to have a small ceremony. The affirmation of goodness often gets dismissed because the negatives weigh us down so much. Gratitude reminds us not to miss the affirmations of good.
The second component Emmons shares about gratitude is figuring out where that goodness comes from. He asserts that most of the time gratitude comes from outside ourselves. We move out of our ruminations of the negative and move into an awareness of our healthy dependence on others. Emmons says, “We acknowledge that other people, or even higher powers, gave us many gifts, big and small, to help us achieve the goodness in our lives.” For people of faith in Christ, gratitude comes in living out what James, Jesus’ brother writes about, “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.” Recognizing the variety of gifts given to us each day, like our every breath, clean water, homes, food, family, friends, zoom, health, just to name a few, help us grow our gratitude muscle.
One last thought – Paul, who wrote many letters that make up the New Testament, challenges us as we hold both grief and gratitude, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” This year, especially during the holidays, we will hold many griefs and disappointments. But as we hold our long list of ways 2020 has been the worst year ever, may we also hold on to, and be super intentional about, the many reasons for gratitude.