Giving thanks during a pandemic: 'We learn to appreciate things when we lose them'
In “Big Yellow Taxi,” the singer/songwriter's jaunty 1970 tune about loss – of trees, of healthy food, of a love interest – she repeats and repeats, “Don’t it always seem to go / That you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.”
Mitchell is challenging us to not take things for granted. There is a wildly simple way to do that. It’s called expressing gratitude.
Sure, that may sound eye-rollingly New Agey. But in truth, there has never been a better time to be genuinely thankful than this holiday season, one that arrives in the throes of a wrenching two-year global pandemic. In fact, we as a society are uniquely poised to feel profound gratitude because of our tough times.
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If any parallel is apt, it is to those who grappled with the Great Depression. That generation faced a decadelong hardship so profound that it forged a lasting appreciation for the value of hard work and simple pleasures, both enshrined by the mythic paintings of Norman Rockwell.
“COVID-19 was all about death,” says Rice University historian Douglas Brinkley. “This recovery is about a renewed feeling of survival, a gratefulness for backyard barbecues, religious services, or listening to live music. It’s a time of gratitude.”
Consider this our Depression-lite Generation’s chance for an attitude makeover. Perhaps on Turkey Day, ditch those superficial appreciations (“I’m happy my football team won”) in favor of more profound celebrations (“I’m glad Grandpa Joe is here with us”). It’s simple enough, though it does take commitment.
The good news, those who study and lecture on gratitude tell USA TODAY, is that guides abound, from books to podcasts, on how to make time for gratitude. The practice not only makes you feel good but can even train the brain to keep that high alive, they say.
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The cautionary word, however, is that humans are prone to what’s called hedonic adaptation, which basically translates to a tendency to revert back to our old – and in this case, unappreciative – ways.
“We are very good at getting used to changes, good and bad, which is what adaptation is, so in that sense, gratitude is the antidote to adaptation,” says Sonja Lyubomirsky, psychology professor at the University of California, Riverside, and author of “The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want.”
In order to keep adaptation from erasing your sense of gratitude, “you need to commit to practicing it, consciously thinking or talking about what you appreciate about your life,” she says. “It’s work.”
But precisely because we have been toiling through a time of unprecedented hardship, experts urge us not to blow this chance to make gratitude a permanent part of our psyche.
“This pandemic is a huge opportunity for us as a society to reset because if you missed the memo, it’s still out there,” says Nancy Davis Kho, author of “The Thank-You Project,” a 2019 book in which she wrote 50 letters of gratitude to friends and family.
Through that yearlong process, Kho’s letters fortified her positive recall bias, which is “a tendency to notice good things around us, whether a good book or dinner or friend, and that rewires your brain so that it’s easier and easier to see those things in your life.”
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Celebrities haven't been shy about the power of gratitude in their lives.
Oprah Winfrey is among a bevy of stars who kept a gratitude journal, nothing more complicated than noting what you give thanks for daily.
“I practice being grateful,” Winfrey told the 2017 graduates of Skidmore College. “And a lot of people say, ‘Oh, Oprah, that’s easy for you because you've got everything!’ (But) I've got everything because I practiced being grateful.”
In 2018, Lin-Manuel Miranda simply tweeted: "Gmorning with gratitude to the books, movies, plays, and music you love the most, and how they helped you figure out what you love what you're doing and who you are in your time here, it's your time after all."
In that same pre-pandemic year, actress Kerry Washington tweeted, "Today I choose: gratitude. It will probably look & feel like many different kinds of emotions but I want to keep my gratitude in first place."
In 2020, during the height of the unfolding pandemic, Yoko Ono tweeted: "I give thanks every day how wonderful it is to be still breathing. And you should, too."
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That simple act of appreciation came easily in the difficult 1930s when 1 in 4 Americans was unemployed and 1 in 5 – some 20 million people – survived on food stamps.
“The Depression forced people to reevaluate their priorities,” says Stephen Mihm, history professor at the University of Georgia, who notes that people started to appreciate simple and inexpensive pastimes such as bridge and bird-watching.
“Something similar is happening now, where just the act of sitting outside with friends takes on new meaning,” he says.
Part of this awakening stems from the fact that the past seven decades have been filled with almost steady economic growth and no Depression-like cataclysms. This created a false sense that things would always be this way. In truth, over the centuries such a smooth sail is more exception than the rule.
“Collective trauma is more the norm, historically,” says Mihm. “But deprivation isn’t the end of the world. Paradoxically, it often produces happier, healthier people.”
By the time the Depression and, a bit later, World War II ended, in 1945, Americans “went into hyper-gratitude in their feelings of wonder for the American way,” says historian Brinkley.
What helped was comparatively few distractions that these days are leveled at us by technology, says Jay Shetty, former monk turned podcaster and purpose coach and author of "Think Like A Monk: Train Your Mind for Peace and Purpose Every Day."
"The pandemic has underscored for people that it really is the simple things, like spending time with those we love, that enrich our lives most," he says. "So it may be that the extent to which we continue with an attitude of appreciation will depend on how much we prioritize paying attention and committing to a gratitude practice going forward."
Shetty suggests creating a gratitude habit. For one week, plan to spend five minutes after waking and five minutes before going to bed listing three things for which you're grateful. "Chances are you'll find that the practice feels so good you continue on well past the week," he says.
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For many, COVID-19 has challenged our ability to be grateful
To be sure, nearly two years into this health crisis, there has been incalculable loss and suffering, punctuated by the deaths of 770,000 Americans. Nearly 1 in 7 of us, or approaching 50 million people, have contracted the virus, which hasn't affected some but in others has left debilitating complications that can make life miserable.
Some have been spared, by diligence, avoidance, luck or the swiftly developed and distributed vaccine. But the pain that has been meted out has been felt disproportionately by the poor, people of color and the LGBTQ community, whose ongoing struggles for economic and social equity were exacerbated by the pandemic.
Seemingly every aspect of our society – commerce, leisure, education, politics – has been impacted by the virus and the disconnect over COVID-19 vaccinations, and the result has led to some fractures in the nation’s so-dubbed perfect union.
But this dark cloud does have a glimmering lining, experts say.
“Gratitude indeed often flows from dramatic moments of trials, tribulations, tragedies and other moments of suffering, either personal or collective,” says Robert Emmons, editor in chief of The Journal of Positive Psychology and author of “Thanks! How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier.”
Emmons says it is not a coincidence to him that the very first Thanksgiving was celebrated after a harsh winter that killed many of the pilgrims; that it became a national holiday during the ravages of the Civil War; and that it was anchored to its current November date in the middle of the Depression. “Is there a significance to this?” he says. “I think so.”
Making gratitude an everyday part of your life requires work and guidance, he says. In Emmons’ “The Little Book of Gratitude," he lays out ways readers can better incorporate gratitude in their lives. His favorite method is dubbed The George Bailey, after Jimmy Stewart’s character in the redemptive film fable “It’s A Wonderful Life.”
“You make a list of what you are prone to take for granted in your life and then cross them off one by one, contemplating the absence of this blessing, of what your life would be like without that person, circumstance, object,” he says. This pushes you to “take aspects of your life less for granted, and more as granted.”
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One suggestion is to start at the Thanksgiving dinner table. Instead of launching into the usual superficial chatter, be bold enough to really connect and share what you are thankful for, says Kristi Nelson, executive director of A Network for Grateful Living and author of “Wake Up Grateful: The Transformative Practice of Taking Nothing for Granted.”
“Let’s change our rituals and deepen the way we gather because we’ve seen up close how fragile life is,” says Nelson, whose own views came into focus after surviving Stage 4 cancer. “There’s no better way to honor those people we’ve lost to the pandemic than to ask ourselves: How would they live if they could come back for one day? Can we learn from that, and start living that way now?”
One of her favorite suggestions for those in search of guidance is a practice, featured on her organization’s site, called “From Obligation to Opportunity.”
You write down five things from your to-do list, such as paying bills or washing dishes, leading off with the heading: “I have to.”
“Then you write the same list, but start with ‘I get to,’ ” says Nelson. “Watch how your attitude and energy shifts when you see responsibilities and obligations as privileges and opportunities.”
People do seem to be in search of such guidance. During the pandemic-driven lockdowns, Georgian Benta saw interest in his five-year-old The Gratitude Podcast leap. It is currently among the top 1% of podcasts globally, according to Listen Score.
Benta, who has recorded hundreds of episodes from his home in the Romanian city of Cluj-Napoca, was aiming to “bring a new perspective on gratitude to Westerners from a country that many people are fleeing from,” he says. “The point is you can find gratitude wherever you are.”
After interviewing 200-plus guests, ranging from 9/11 survivors to monks, Benta says he has detected a common theme.
“Often, it’s people discovering gratitude after they lost something valuable for them: a business, a job, a loved one,” he says. “We learn to appreciate things when we lose them, unfortunately.”
OK, so Joni Mitchell said it more lyrically, but you get the point. The time to be grateful is now. So grab it, along with that turkey leg.
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