The pandemic has brought great uncertainty, changed our opportunity to interact with loved ones and has affected millions of jobs. While 2020 has been a trying time, which will likely impact the next few years of our lives, some would suggest it’s even more important now than ever to be thankful for what you have.

“There are a lot of studies that show that our thoughts lead first, then our emotions follow,” says W. Steven Saunders, UCF associate lecturer of psychology and a licensed psychologist. “Given that, establishing positive emotions or wellbeing — even in the face of difficult things happening in your life — by practicing gratitude can psychologically shifts your attention to things that are actually going right in your life.”

Understanding the Benefits

Thanksgiving is a time when people typically express their appreciation for their family, friends, or a delicious meal, but the changes and challenges of this year may make it hard to find this spirit.

“Whether you’re talking to older relatives or younger friends over the holidays, talk with them about if they’ve seen anything good come out of this strange, bizarre year and it might be interesting to see what different generations have to say about that,” says Linda Simmons ’20MA, aa staff therapist who supports students through the College of Medicine’s Counseling and Wellness Services.

“The most reliable research suggests there is an indirect impact on physical health.” — Linda Simmons ’20MA, College of Medicine staff therapist

Regardless, gratitude can be a daily practice that has long-term effects. Over the past decade, many studies on gratitude have shown varying advantages, such as improving sleep and mental health, reducing ailments, and even boosting your immune system.

But the benefits may not happen the way you think.

“The most reliable research suggests there is an indirect impact on physical health,” says Simmons, who recently earned a master’s in counselor education from UCF. “Gratitude can help you receive the benefits of greater emotional well-being, psychological health, and social health, which can cause people to be more likely to take care of themselves physically and their medical health needs.”

And while there have been mixed results on gratitude’s ability to influence levels of depression, Saunders notes that positive and negative emotions have a hard time coexisting together.

“When you purposely set up a positive emotion, it cascades and helps you feel good more often,” Saunders says.

Authenticity is Key

Some people are naturally predisposed to a more negative outlook, making it harder to find things to be thankful for than others, Simmons says. Even if you’re a glass-half-full type of person, it may be challenging some days to maintain your gratitude.

“One thing we don’t find very helpful is forced gratitude.” — Linda Simmons ’20MA, College of Medicine staff therapist

“One thing we don’t find very helpful is forced gratitude,” Simmons says. “I wouldn’t advise launching into a person for whom gratitude doesn’t come easy or telling someone to ‘Just look on the bright side.’ Oftentimes that actually makes a person feel less positive.”

Instead, take time to truly process whatever you’re feeling, especially if you’ve lost experiences, people or opportunities in the past year. Sometimes the best thing you can do for someone else is to just listen.

“A lot of negativity is fear-based and we’re living in an age where there’s a lot of fear going around,” Saunders says. “What we know about psychology is the more you talk about your feelings and emotions the more they change. So approaching someone with compassion and really listening can really make a difference.”

Once, you’re ready to start focusing on the positive, Saunders says you should develop a ritual or routine around the value that is meaningful to you.

Grow Your Gratitude

Gratitude is a like a muscle and like any muscle consistent exercise is necessary for growth. One common practice is the “The Big Three,” naming or writing a list of three things you’re grateful for each day. Keeping a gratitude journal can benefit you personally, as well as professionally. A study conducted by UCF researchers earlier this year found the habit can lead employees to exhibit less rude behavior and mistreatment of others in the workplace.

Another method is writing a letter to someone who has made a difference in your life. Although gratitude can make a difference even when you keep it to yourself, sharing your appreciating with others can help spread positive feelings and strengthen your relationships.

When giving thanks to a loved one, a new study published in Sage Journals found it’s best to be specific about how they helped support your needs. It also found that you should avoid pointing out sacrifices an individual has made for you since it diminishes their altruistic motivation for doing so.

“Even if you don’t have a spiritual or religious belief, you can still practice gratitude in some simple ways every day.” — W. Steven Saunders, psychology associate lecturer

“Whatever your personal belief system might be, you can incorporate that,” Saunders says. “Even if you don’t have a spiritual or religious belief, you can still practice gratitude in some simple ways every day.”

Simmons, who has experience as a Presbyterian minister and a hospital chaplain, says gratitude is an important value and practice in most major world religions, including Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism.

“For some people, gratitude is spiritual. For other people, it’s interpersonal. But it’s outside ourselves in some way, something we didn’t make happen, cause, create, or earn — it’s given to us as a gift,” Simmons says. “To me, gratitude is an invitation to say ‘I wonder if that’s the only way we can look at this day, week, month, season or year? Is there a way we can look at not just what we lost or missed, but what we learned, what is new about a circumstance or what brought us closer?’ Most of us have never been through a pandemic before, and we don’t know how to handle it, so however we’ve handled it is OK.”

Students struggling with maintaining their emotional and mental well-being can find support through Counseling and Psychological Services. UCF employees and their dependents can take advantage of the Employee Assistance Program, which provides confidential, short-term counseling at no cost.