3 Gratitude Exercises for a Difficult Year

Normally, the week before Thanksgiving in the Stevens household is a hot mess. Between an annual Friendsgiving and then our modern, multi-family Thanksgiving, we entertain, cook, and clean for somewhere between eighteen and thirty people. This year, we have had to lean into a dramatically limited event, with an increasing likelihood that it will be just us. I am sure you are facing similar difficult decisions. One of the cruelest aspects of a pandemic is not being able to gather with the people you love.

What has not changed is that Thanksgiving is America’s holiday devoted to gratitude. A national pause to reflect on all we are grateful for. In a year that has been extraordinarily difficult, this reflection can feel challenging. Yet, research shows that practicing gratitude actually reduces stress. I vividly remember a section in Sheryl Sanberg’s book Option B when Adam Grant suggests she think about what she’s grateful for after her husband Dave’s shocking death. She pushes back on the idea that there is anything to be grateful for right then. Adam’s response: “His heart attack didn’t happen while he was driving your children.”

Yes, even in the midst of devastating loss, there are things for which we can find gratitude. But, like anything, honing in on appreciation takes practice and exercise.

Here are three ways you can explore what you are grateful for:

  1. Make a List

    The most straightforward gratitude exercise is to make a list. Challenge yourself to list at least ten things, as that takes you past Maslov’s base-level needs of food, water, and shelter and into more creative territory. By the time I got past ten, I had listed King Arthur flour being back on the shelves and my physical therapist. If you want to get creative or do this with kids, you can get crafty and turn these into a flower or tree.

  2. Imagine What you Could Lose

    A second exercise is to consider losing one thing you take for granted. For example, your ability to see or hear, heat, or access to high-speed broadband. Then imagine getting each of these things back and consider how grateful you would be for each and every one.

  3. Write a Letter

    A third gratitude exercise is one I would encourage each of you to do this week. Write a gratitude letter. (Yes, email is acceptable.) The person who gets the letter might be someone you take for granted. It might be someone you haven’t seen in years, but whose mentorship, teaching, or coaching profoundly impacted you. It could be that colleague you are always glad to have on a project, even if you aren’t personally close.

When I thought about who I would write a letter to, I realized it was to my kids. Not individually, but to them both together. They have been remarkable in the face of so much adversity. While Mr. Stevens and I navigated two businesses through the rollercoaster of shutdowns, customer holds, and losses, they held it together even as their worlds fell apart as well. They were kind to each other the vast majority of the time. They showed up on time and prepared for Zoom school even if many days felt pointless. They have taken on extra chores when we cut out landscaping and cleaning services for financial reasons. They adhered to rules about wearing masks and not going inside most friends’ houses. And, above all, they talked to us about how they were feeling, both the good and the bad.

Ultimately, I could not do what I do without them being as independent, flexible, responsible, and resilient as they have been. I know many, many women who are having to step back or step out because their kids are not thriving. I am incredibly grateful I have not (so far) had to face that agonizing choice.

Thank You

Finally, I am grateful to those Spark newsletter readers who hit reply and share a story or a thought. Writing can feel questionably beneficial at times. Was this useful or helpful? Did this inspire anyone? Your notes mean the world to me. Thank you.

Quote of the Week: “Feeling gratitude and not expressing it is like wrapping a present and not giving it.”

William Arthur Ward

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