During dark times, gratitude matters more than ever.

By Brett Beasley

In the midst of a crisis, gratitude can help you access the resources and support you need.

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Are you finding it hard to be grateful this year? We are, after all, in the midst of a global pandemic that has claimed well over a million lives worldwide. It has shuttered an untold number of businesses and sent out shock waves of political and economic uncertainty. To make matters worse, COVID-19 has now cancelled the family gatherings and events we use to share our gratitude. Even the giant Norway spruce recently craned into place in Rockefeller Center Plaza to announce the beginning of the holiday season appeared not to be up for the task this year.

So it’s understandable if the arrival of Thanksgiving feels unwelcome, like a bossy parent forcing you to “mind your manners” and say “Thank you.” We feel more ready to express gratitude after a problem has been solved, after a gift has been received, after we’ve faced the struggle and survived it. But research suggests that if we wait to express gratitude until the end of a struggle, we miss its true power. So although Thanksgiving may look different this year, here are some reasons not to opt out of giving thanks altogether.

Gratitude Helps Us Foster Resilience

It is during—not after—a crisis that we stand to benefit most from gratitude. This is because, like other positive emotions, gratitude helps us “broaden and build.” First, it broadens our available set of mental and emotional resources, keeping us resilient. Secondly, it helps us build a network of people who can provide the support, creativity, and collaboration we need during dark times.

For example, a recent study revealed that grateful firefighters are better equipped to perform well over the long term. Gratitude brings firefighters the shift in perspective, positive emotions, and social connections they need to withstand the effects of sustained stress, trauma, and hardships. Researchers have made similar discoveries among mental health professionals, athletes, and teachers.

Microsoft found that gratitude gave a boost to software engineers who were asked to work from home during the difficult and uncertain early months of the pandemic. Those who reflected on gratitude were more likely to report being satisfied and experienced higher levels of wellbeing.

Seeing the Good—and the Bad

Are these firefighters, mental health professionals, athletes, teachers, and software engineers simply engaging in naive optimism or positive thinking? The answer is no. Gratitude doesn’t require them to ignore the serious difficulties—even tragedies—they encounter by declaring “This is fine” when nothing could be further from the truth.

Instead, they simply recognize that the bad they see is not the whole story. They don’t allow the reality of what’s bad to blind them to the good they receive from others.

Whether they realize it or not, those who are grateful in spite of their difficulties are correcting for the way their brains are “wired for bad,” as psychologist Roy Baumeister puts it. In a classic study, Baumeister and his colleagues demonstrated that "Bad emotions, bad parents, and bad feedback have more impact than good ones, and bad information is processed more thoroughly than good.”

In other words, from a psychological perspective, “bad is stronger than good.” Sometimes the fact that we are “wired for bad” helps us. We manage to survive and thrive only by attending to possible threats and dangers. Too much attention to what’s bad, however, is bad for us. Instead of helping us, it undermines our quest to overcome the very problems it helps us recognize.

Here are a few ways to tap into gratitude without becoming “Pollyannaish” along the way.

Put it in Practice

Make gratitude authentic.

True gratitude is not a quick fix. It is more than just “looking on the bright side” to “raise your spirits” through a quick boost of positive emotion. Gratitude is most effective when we make it a personal, intentional habit. We should not force anyone, especially our subordinates, to be grateful. (When we do, we turn gratitude into a tool to gain or maintain power over others.) We should encourage them to reflect on gratitude in their own way.

Similarly, when we express our gratitude to others, we should avoid speaking transactionally. Recent research by Yoobin Park and her colleagues suggests that we prefer to be thanked by hearing about how we’ve helped others and how we’ve met their needs (i.e. “I’m so happy that you were there when I needed you at 4:30 in the morning […] I don’t know what I would do if I didn’t have you there that day”). This is more important than having others recognize how much it cost us (i.e. “You’ve sacrificed a lot [...] and I know that’s something that was very difficult.”)

Reinvent the simple practices you may have lost.

The pandemic has not just altered holiday plans; it has disrupted our informal ways of sharing gratitude as well. A quick verbal or written “Thank you,” a high five, a pat on the back—these have all evaporated due to social distancing and remote work. But this doesn't have to stop us from sharing gratitude. In fact, it is a good opportunity to be more intentional and to recognize the ways you’ve likely failed to say “Thank you” in the past.

Look for the helpers—and become one.

Some initial research on reactions to COVID-19 suggests that those who are most committed to gratitude also are those most likely to take positive actions to help others during the pandemic. Researchers find that, especially when they have a high value for fairness, grateful people are more likely to perform the “Small individual actions such as wearing a mask, employing self-quarantine and practicing social distancing” that can “go a long way in helping contain the number of COVID-19 cases.”

Fred Rogers famously shared this advice his mother gave him when he was a child: “Whenever there would be any catastrophe, she would say, ‘Always look for the helpers. There will always be helpers.’” Taking the time to see these helpers is not necessarily, as some have suggested, a way of getting ourselves off the hook. In fact, by recognizing and thanking the “helpers” who are making a difference in our (and others’) lives, we will be better equipped to become helpers ourselves.

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