Have the Holiday Crazies Set In? This Simple Gratitude Practice Can Help You Reset and Remember What’s Most Important
In the early spring of 2020, as a global pandemic shut down life as we knew it, I started noticing another infectious outbreak. All around me, people faced extreme isolation or claustrophobic togetherness; relentless tedium or crippling uncertainty; fear of losing their jobs, their homes, their loved ones—and yet they responded with an outpouring of gratitude.
In the absence of a cure of a vaccine, I was reminded of one of the grandest lessons I learned from the previous year, which I spent writing 365 thank you notes: Gratitude is strong medicine. It helps us see what’s there instead of pining for what’s missing. It spurs empathy and compassion and is an antidote to self-centered whining.
Towards the end of what I called my “Thank You Year,” I had become fairly adept at figuring out the best format for a batch of recipients. When envisioning how to thank family members, I knew it would be too intimidating to write 30 overarching gratitude letters. I imagined writing to my mom, selecting from countless moments, thanking her for making me milky tea, and for editing out the dirtiest parts of Dirty Dancing on VHS, and for, I don’t know, giving me life? And for, like, everything else?
The prospect of such meandering letters reminded me of the month I spent writing thank-you notes to my friends, when I had turned old pictures into “Remember When?” postcards. The picture inspired the content, as well as a dose of nostalgia, and the limited space made the task doable. I couldn’t write an exhaustive account of our relationship even if I wanted to.
For the family batch, I could have looked through old pictures, but I had another idea. I would see so many family members for the holidays that month—why not document our time together and turn those pictures into postcards? The instant memorabilia would double as holiday cards.
And, bonus: I wasn’t able to write these cards until the very end of the month, after all the celebrations, which gave me a little breather.
The family month kicked off on Veterans Day, when I flew to Florida with my husband and our two kids for a long weekend with my dad, his partner, my sister, and my brother, all of whom I was careful to snap pictures of. When we returned home, I went into full holiday mode, prepping for my mom’s arrival and back-to-back Thanksgiving and brunch parties. I made sure to take plenty of group photos—something I never remember to do and always vaguely regret.
Capturing these sweet moments with family members I see only once or twice every year or two gave me a new perspective on the holiday. Instead of running around, I was looking around. I was watching for special moments to capture, and therefore I saw them. Mentally, I was already writing thank-you notes, spotting the people who were clearing plates, or playing with my kids. It was an entirely different approach to hosting, one that forced me to be rooted in the gathering instead of simply producing the party.
Writing out the 30 postcards at the end of the month didn’t feel like a chore. I printed out the photos on heavy card stock (I used Artifact Uprising), and all I had to do was draw that vertical line with a message on the left, the stamp and address on the right.
I started with the Veterans Day pictures. “Dear Brigi,” I wrote to my sister, on the back of a shot of her with the kids and a pretend rocket ship. “Thank you for playing with my children in a cardboard box for hours. Your patience for them and deep, deep love for them is a gift, and really kinda knocks me out. Thank you for being such a great aunt.” On the back of a picture of my dad teaching one of our sons how to fish, I wrote to my father: “Thank you for keeping an eye on the boys. They adore you—I do too!”
Sitting with pictures and basking in gratitude for these family members—for their helping out or for their showing up and being themselves—enhanced and prolonged the good feelings the holidays gave me.
My Thank You Year didn’t carry me from stingy to generous, or from miserable to happy, or from cruel to kind. But it allowed me to look outside myself and my lists and really see other people. It helped me go from disconnected to connected, from distracted to present, from autopilot to pilot, from cranky and busy to joyful and optimistic.
Gratitude is optimism. It’s choosing to see the contours of what’s there instead of the shadows of what’s missing. And gratitude is a pathway back—to a friendship, to hobbies you once loved, to identities you’ve shed. It’s a pathway back to yourself. Writing thank you notes helped me fall in love with my too hectic, often messy, deeply imperfect, very lucky, absolutely miraculous life. And expressing gratitude can do the same for you, too.
Want to start or keep an active gratitude practice? Here are some things I’ve been trying without the rigors of a Thank You Year:
1. Make a dedicated thank you note folder. I bought a leather folder that has compartments for cards, with a pen and stamps on one side and a notebook where I list people to thank on the other. I keep the folder handy for when I might have 10 or 15 minutes to write.
2. Start Thankful Thursdays. I try to write a few thank you notes on Thursdays around lunchtime.
3. Write notes as a weekend project. If you have kids, you know the weekend can stretch on. Decorating cards and writing thank you notes is a great project to do together, and it gives you an opportunity to teach kids how to live a grateful life.
4. Express gratitude any way you like. When you experience a fleeting moment of happiness, hold on to it, and tell the person or people responsible. That could be verbally, by text, or in a card.
From I WANT TO THANK YOU by Gina Hamadey, published by TarcherPerigee, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2021 by Gina Hamadey. Buy the book here!