During the rush of the holiday season, it can be helpful to slow down and appreciate elements of everyday life that are often overlooked.
Practicing gratitude has numerous benefits for mental, emotional and physical health, said Brittney Schrick, extension assistant professor and family life specialist for the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture.
"Gratitude is the act of feeling thankful for what you have," Schrick said. "It doesn't have to be a big thing. It can literally just be that you woke up this morning or that you have food on your table.
"And practicing gratitude has a lot of benefits. Anything that you can do where you're focused on feeling gratitude and being thankful for what you have has been proven to benefit your body and your brain."
One can practice gratitude in many ways, including through journaling or keeping a daily gratitude list, because "gratitude is a practice, much like yoga or any other sort of exercise," Schrick said.
"It can help you focus on positive things, especially on days when that's not where your brain is trying to go," she said. "If you're having a struggle, forcing yourself to think of something good can completely turn your brain around and your day around."
Establishing a daily gratitude practice can also be a helpful teaching tool for children, Schrick said. As part of an established routine -- at bedtime, bath time, or around the dinner table -- ask your child, "What was something good that happened today?" or, "What is something you're grateful for today?" This can help children learn to be grateful and practice positive thinking.
"If you're constantly being negative, your kids are going to pick up on that," Schrick said. "If that's something that you want to work on, it's OK to be open and say, 'You know what, mom shouldn't have said that that way.' Giving yourself the grace to correct, rephrase or reframe something also teaches your kids that that's OK. Parents don't have to be perfect, grandparents don't have to be perfect and it shows vulnerability to be able to say, 'What I said was not very nice. I really don't want to talk about people that way, let me try again.'"
An important element of practicing gratitude is sharing it with others, through daily acts of appreciation -- such as thanking one's barista or grocery store clerk -- or by giving back to the community. Passing along kindness and compassion helps people make connections with the world around them.
"It makes you leave your own anxieties and your own internal conflicts behind and move toward someone else," Schrick said.
"The connection that service and returning kindness can bring is missing from a lot of other types of interaction. Loneliness and social isolation are so universally negative for our brains and our bodies that that's part of the benefit of practicing gratitude. It can strengthen or create new connections between people, even if they're just brief."
This holiday season, consider including acts of service as part of the festivities. Schrick suggested calling local community organizations -- such as food pantries or soup kitchens -- to see when they need volunteers, as many organizations have an excess of volunteers during the weeks of Thanksgiving and Christmas.
"It can also be great to visit people who might be alone for the holidays, but if you plan on going to a nursing home, call ahead, as they might have specific people whom they would love for you to come see, which they can arrange ahead of time," Schrick said. "Reach out to local organizations that might already do this sort of thing instead of trying to come up with your own plan."
To learn about extension programs in Arkansas, contact a local Cooperative Extension Service agent or visit www.uaex.uada.edu. Follow the agency on Twitter and Instagram at @AR_Extension.
Rebekah Hall is with the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture.