The ongoing pandemic has not only changed our daily routines but is also impacting how we celebrate special occasions. In light of the upcoming holiday season, there is potential for all of us to feel difficult emotions, including continued uncertainty and anxiety, grief, sadness, and loneliness. It is possible that not all family members will be able to get together this holiday season or that certain traditions will not occur as planned. It is only natural for our brains to focus on the losses, struggles and hardships we have all experienced during this time.
In the spirit of the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday in the US, however, this can also be a time to slow down and to consciously practice gratitude as a way to boost our mood and our sense of connectedness and belonging. Increased feelings of gratitude have been shown to be associated with more positive mood, greater social support, more generosity, better quality relationships and lower symptoms of depression and anxiety (i). The good news is that gratitude is a feeling we can cultivate by paying attention and appreciating the things we have in life.
Here we have collected several activities that you can practice on your own, with younger children, teenagers as well as family and friends who live far away to increase your sense of gratitude, boost your mood and create a closer bond with those around you.
Activities to do on your own
Make a gratitude list – One of the easiest way to practice gratitude is to keep a gratitude list and to write down 3 new things you feel grateful for each day. The key word here is new. Challenge yourself not to repeat the items on your list, but to generate novel things every day. You might notice that while this may be easy for the first few days, you may have to think a little bit harder to come up with new things after a few days. This will train your brain to scan your internal and external world for positive things and will prevent you from going on “autopilot”. It is up to you for how long you want to keep up this practice. Most studies that have investigated the impact of keeping a gratitude list have ranged in duration between 1-3 weeks.
Go for a gratitude walk – Go for a walk around your neighborhood or your home and find 3 things you are grateful for. You can also take photos of those things and keep them in a special folder on your phone to give yourself a mood boost when you need it.
Express gratitude to others – Expressing gratitude to other people is another easy way to increase not only your own wellbeing but also the wellbeing of those around you. The expression of gratitude towards a close friend or partner can lead to increased relationship satisfaction and overall wellbeing (ii), and the expression of gratitude towards a stranger can even lead to increased altruism (iii). It is important to remember that studies have shown that relationship quality only seemed to improve when we express our appreciation to someone else, not when we just think grateful thoughts (iv).
Expressing gratitude to others can take many forms. One study showed that handwriting a letter to someone who was not properly thanked and delivering it in person led to the biggest increases in positive emotions that lasted for 1 month and outperformed other types of writing interventions, such as writing about one’s best self (v). Maybe you feel inspired to write a letter and send it to a special someone this holiday season. It does not have to be as elaborate as handwriting a letter, however. Other forms of expressing thanks to someone can also include writing someone a quick email or text message as well as expressing your appreciation verbally to people in your family. If you want to potentially contribute to making your wider community a little bit kinder, you could also practice more consciously showing appreciation for strangers you may encounter in the store, doctor’s office, or on a walk.
Activities to do with young children
The practice of gratitude is not only something that adults benefit from, but has also shown to lead to increases in positive mood, school satisfaction, and generosity in children and adolescents (vi; vii). If you like to engage your children in an easy daily gratitude practice, you could create a daily ritual to come up with one thing you feel grateful for as a family and to share this at bedtime or at the dinner table.
Children may be even more engaged when the gratitude practice is part of a fun arts and crafts activity and we have listed a few different options below. If you have children who are curious about the science of gratitude and would like to read up more about the positive benefits of gratitude in a child friendly way, you can explore this article together.
Gratitude flower – The gratitude flower is a simple project where the different petals of the flower represent different things you are grateful for. It requires cutting out some colored paper and gluing the different petals to the center of your flower. Download and print the gratitude flower template to make your own!
Gratitude tree – The gratitude tree is similar to the gratitude flower, but it requires finding an old branch and using string to hang up the different leaves that stand for different things you are grateful for. In this activity, it is easy to add more and more leaves throughout the week or month and every family member can add the things they are grateful for to the same tree. Download and print the gratitude tree template to make your own!
Activities to do with teenagers
Teenagers may not be as easily engaged in a family gratitude practice as younger children. It is important to keep in mind not to place judgements over what your teenager identifies as feeling gratitude towards. If you are worried that your teen may roll your eyes at crafting a gratitude tree or saying thanks at the dinner table, you could try to engage your teen in the following ways.
Gratitude photos – Another way to practice gratitude is to take photos of the things you are grateful for and to share these photos as a family. One way to do this is to create a family gratitude text messaging group where every family member can share something new they are grateful for each day. If your family includes teenagers as well as children who are not old enough to use a camera, you can also ask younger children to draw what they are grateful for and take a photo to share with the group. You could also print out the photos and hang them on your gratitude tree (see above). In order to make this activity as easy as possible, you could create a rule where no one has to explain what they are grateful for and that photos of the same person or item are allowed (e.g., every family member is allowed to send a different photo of the family dog). You can also ask your teen to send a different prompt each day that the rest of the family has to follow (e.g., Today, think of something that has the color red that you are grateful for). We have compiled a list of ideas for prompts below.
Give your teen responsibility – Teenagers often do not like being told what to do and you do not want them to see a gratitude practice as another thing they “have to do for their parent”. You could therefore also ask your teen that you would like them to come up with a new gratitude practice for the family. You could suggest some of the prompts we have complied below for them to draw inspiration from.
Activities to do with family members that live far away
This year it is more likely than at any other time that we may be unable to see certain friends and family members during the holidays. Fortunately, modern technology makes it easy to practice gratitude with loved ones who live far away.
Gratitude text messaging and photos – As in the activity described above aimed at families with teenagers, you could consider creating a gratitude text or email messaging group that is solely dedicated to texts, photos, or videos of things you and your loved ones are grateful for. This group could not only be used during the holidays but be present year-round and could encourage you to constantly be on the “look-out” for new things you are grateful for to share with your family. You can also use prompts to challenge your family members each day with a different theme (e.g., “Everyone think of something that starts with the letter “G” that you are thankful for today”).
Gratitude video chats – During this pandemic, many families have started to host regular video chats with family members who live far away. You could make it part of a quick “check-in” to ask every person on the call to list one thing they are grateful for today. This may create a positive mood boost for all people on the call, as a study has shown that even a 5-minute quick gratitude intervention has led to immediate increases in positive emotions (viii).
Using gratitude prompts
All of the activities described above can be modified to include gratitude “prompts” rather than just identifying anything you feel grateful for.
Themes – After you have picked one of the activities listed above, you could come up with a plan of including different themes of something to be grateful for. Here is a list of potential prompts. If you are doing an activity with your family, you can also brainstorm together what prompts you want to use.
- A person I am grateful for
- A part of nature I am grateful for
- A book I am grateful for
- A memory that makes me smile
- Something specific I am grateful for in each of my family members
- A specific part of the city that I live in that I am grateful for
- Something my body can do that I am grateful for
- An item in my home that I am grateful for
- Something someone has done for me that I am grateful for
Colors, Shapes, ABCs – With all of the activities listed above, we are training our gratitude muscle to notice and appreciate the things we have in life. In order to train your gratitude muscle to think outside of the box, you could also have much less well-defined prompts and use the letters of the alphabet, different colors, or shapes as jumping-off points. You may surprise yourself with what kind of things you feel appreciative of that you usually do not think of.
- Something I am grateful for that is red (green, yellow, blue, etc.)
- Something I am grateful for that is round (rectangular, triangular, etc.)
- Something I am grateful for that starts with the letter R (or go through the whole alphabet from start to finish and think of three things that start with the next three letters in the alphabet every day)
Anna Alkozei, PhD
Clinical Psychology Intern for CARES
i. Alkozei, A., Smith, R., & Killgore, W. D. (2018). Gratitude and subjective wellbeing: A proposal of two causal frameworks. Journal of Happiness Studies, 19(5), 1519-1542.
ii. Algoe, S. B. (2012). Find, remind, and bind: The functions of gratitude in everyday relationships. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 6(6), 455-469.
iii. Bartlett, M. Y., & DeSteno, D. (2006). Gratitude and prosocial behavior: Helping when it costs you. Psychological science, 17(4), 319-325.
iv. Lambert, N. M., Clark, M. S., Durtschi, J., Fincham, F. D., & Graham, S. M. (2010). Benefits of expressing gratitude: Expressing gratitude to a partner changes one’s view of the relationship. Psychological Science, 21(4), 574-580.
v. Seligman, M. E., Steen, T. A., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: empirical validation of interventions. American psychologist, 60(5), 410.
vi. Froh, J. J., Sefick, W. J., & Emmons, R. A. (2008). Counting blessings in early adolescents: An experimental study of gratitude and subjective well-being. Journal of school psychology, 46(2), 213-233.
vii. Chaplin, L. N., John, D. R., Rindfleisch, A., & Froh, J. J. (2019). The impact of gratitude on adolescent materialism and generosity. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 14(4), 502-511.
viii. Watkins, P. C., Woodward, K., Stone, T., & Kolts, R. L. (2003). Gratitude and happiness: Development of a measure of gratitude, and relationships with subjective well-being. Social Behavior and Personality: an international journal, 31(5), 431-451.