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How to Make Gratitude an Everyday Practice
You may have been told as a child that saying "Thank You " was a magic phrase - and there is truth in that statement. Gratitude is a way of honoring or appreciating what you receive, whether it is a tangible item, the presence of a loved one, or something more esoteric.
Counting your blessings during the Thanksgiving holidays is a no brainer, but did you know taking time to be grateful every day can actually rewire your brain to make you think in a more optimistic way? Gratitude can also boost dopamine, the brain's "feel-good " chemical, which wards off depression and lifts your spirits.
If that's not enough to make you want to turn thankfulness into an everyday tradition, research shows that gratitude can actually improve health and lower feelings of isolation in older adults. The holiday season in your senior apartments might seem very different from those you have had in your previous home. But practicing gratitude can help you reach through those anxious feelings and lift your spirits!
That is what Thanksgiving is truly about acknowledging the gifts you have been given throughout the previous year and realizing that there are more to come!
To reap the rewards of gratitude, all you need to do is take a few steps toward changing some of the ways you think. Check out these tips on training your brain to default towards gratitude:
1. Look for the Positive Side
Positive psychology and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) helps participants develop positive ways of thinking, and showing more gratitude can even lead to better health, explains Denise Krouse, MC, LMHC, MDFT. She helps her clients develop more positive ways of thinking, and better regulate their emotions through gratitude. The act of gratitude cultivates empathy and compassion for others, which can make your brain redirect its efforts toward positive aspects of your life.
For instance, Krouse says that as we age, thoughts about aches and pains may tend to dominate our minds. But making a purposeful shift from the pain to something positive, such as "I feel well enough to play cards with my friends today" can help. If a person is unable to visit family members for the holidays, finding creative ways to reach out from your retirement homes, such as through online meeting rooms or by phone video, provides a silver lining.
2. Turn Down Your Critical Voice
Another practice that opens up more mindspace to appreciate the good is turning down the negative voice in your head. You know, that internal voice that says you or something you're doing isn't good enough. Or you might go through some difficult circumstance and think, "Why me? Why do things always happen to me?"
Krouse says when you find yourself in a negative rant, simply recognize it and speak to it: "Thank you very much for your input. I have it under control.' [You can do this] instead of creating this black-and-white dynamic in your head, " she said. "Take a deep, mindful breath and tell yourself you will be fine. " Having some compassion for yourself and recognizing the power of that hijacked feeling of criticism and negativity can help you respond to it from a place of self-acceptance.
3.Turn on the Gratitude Music
Your choice of music can have a positive or negative effect on your mood. Songs or other forms of media affect self-awareness, social relatedness, and mood. Instead of listening to sad songs that speak of broken hearts and police chases, switch the channel to some music of gratitude. Share your new playlist with someone else in your senior living community.
4. Be Specific About What You're Grateful For
It turns out the devil is in the details, even when it comes to being thankful. Robert A. Emmons, Ph.D., is a leading scientific expert on the science of gratitude. He finds that it is helpful to be specific about what you're grateful for. Instead of just listing broad ideas, such as "home, family, and friends'' as three things you might give thanks for on a daily basis, focus on one or two smaller aspects of those topics.
Were you grateful that you left an extra car key with the neighbor now that you have locked yourself out? Are you offering thanks for those yummy carrots that came from the garden at your senior housing community? Hone in on the where, what, and why behind those generic aspects. Doing so will help you be more intentional about gratitude and really get into those positive feelings that come with appreciating the good stuff.
5. Notice How Others are Grateful
Some of our normal, everyday pleasures in our senior apartments are luxuries to others. Even today, people in some countries must walk for miles to fill a pail with drinkable water. Shoes, textbooks, or fresh fruit might be considered items of the rich. By listening to someone else's story, you can give thanks for the small but important things you are able to have. Feeling empathy can help you feel grateful.
6. Make Gratitude Tangible
Training your brain to automatically go to a place of gratitude takes diligence to reverse negative thoughts. But it's also important to put gratitude practices to work in tangible ways. Gratitude journaling has been shown to reduce symptoms of depression while participants are regularly journaling. "I encourage [my clients] to keep a gratitude journal where they write down everything they're grateful for at some point during the day, " says Krouse. "I also encourage them not to write the same thing over and over. "
7. Recognize You're Part of Something Bigger
Whether it's praying, meditating, or being in nature, doing something that focuses your attention outward instead of inward fosters a more positive mindset, making it easier to recognize the blessings in your life.
In a 2020 study, researchers found that seniors who took 15-minute "awe walks " every week felt less distress and more positive emotions than participants who did not take the walks. The "awe-walkers" said they felt more joy and positive emotions during their walks.
"[Scientists] have studied the 12 keys to well-being, and one of the keys is gratitude, " says Krouse. "Another is cultivating a sense of awe by looking at nature, listening to nature, whatever makes us feel a sense of something bigger than ourselves. It triggers the part of the brain with the pleasure center, and activates it, which to me is so profound. "
Try it. After you pray, meditate, or take a walk outside your retirement home, write down three things you're grateful for in your gratitude journal.
Say "Thanks " to Others
You may think about how thankful you are to have a best friend in your senior living community, or a loving family member. But do you tell them? Residents and community management teams in Holiday Retirement communities regularly practice gratitude.
November is "gratitude month, " and we feature gratitude stories and tips in our daily newsletter as well as thanks-themed activities in the retirement home community. But we count our blessings every day, in many ways:
- Gratitude Trees - One of our favorite ways to show gratitude in our senior apartments is by putting leaves on our Gratitude Tree. We write what we're thankful for on paper leaves and hang them on crafted gratitude trees inside the retirement home community.
- Appreciation Stations - People are encouraged to drop notes of gratitude into a box, and we read them at our senior living community gatherings throughout the week.
- Gratitude Walls - Many of our senior living communities have gratitude walls that invite people to write and post what they're grateful for on post-it notes whenever the urge hits them.
- Thank You Notes - Letters of appreciation from our residents in senior housing to team members and vice versa is a daily occurrence, and during the pandemic, hundreds of thank you notes have been exchanged.
- Signs and Symbols - You're likely to find signs of appreciation hanging from our balconies, perched on our lawns, or written in chalk on the sidewalks, especially during this unprecedented time when our team members are going above and beyond. Our retirement home residents' attitudes and resilience is more remarkable than ever!
- Acts of Gratitude - We've been known to throw gratitude car parades, make gratitude goodie bags for each other, include notes of appreciation with delivered meals, and take part in other fun ways to let each other know how much we care.
It's time to give gratitude a chance! If you're ready to start practicing more intentionally, Krouse recommends taking time each day to integrate it into your life and make positive shifts in your thinking.
"It's really having to teach your brain to do different things, " she says. "We have these neuron pathways that certainly do [change]. I find myself going into gratitude spontaneously now after 16 years. The more you do it, the easier it gets."