I recently participated in an icebreaker where the guiding question was “What is your favorite holiday?” I listened as two of my top three favorite holidays were named repeatedly and felt an urge to represent the third when my turn arrived. “I really love Valentine’s Day,” I said to a room of faces that were surprised at best and disgusted at worst.
I get it. Traditionally, Valentine’s Day is a little rough if you’re not at some level of mutual infatuation with another person. What seems to make it especially frustrating for so many people is the focus on what you don’t have, whether that be a significant other, flowers or candy on your desk, or lots of cards in the mailbox you made in your third grade class. On the flip side, Valentine’s Day is a fantastic opportunity for gratitude.
Researcher Robert Emmons points out in his book “The Psychology of Gratitude” that gratitude is the experience of pleasant feelings about a received benefit. It’s about appreciating someone else’s kindness. This requires at least two steps: 1) knowing that someone has given you something good and 2) taking the time to appreciate it!
We live in a fairly fast-paced society where it’s easy to skip chances to reflect, but taking the time to experience gratitude impacts our well-being. It’s not just for February 14, either! Professor Alex Wood and his colleagues called this a “habitual focusing on and appreciating the positive aspects of life.” It’s more than saying thank you immediately after someone helps you.
So this Valentine’s Day, make your “thank you” a habit! Take a little time to appreciate the positive aspects of your day-to-day:
Share gratitude for the love in your life!
This might include the love of your life, but even if not, take a moment to appreciate those who have been there for you, who have smiled at you when you were feeling down, and who love you. Around Valentine’s Day, I like to let my friends know how great I think they are by sending a message via social media or good old-fashioned snail mail.
Writing out our thanks takes more time than simply saying it and moving on, so we force our brains to dwell on the good things we have experienced. Then we have all the more time to soak up those positive feelings!
Many of us aren’t used to articulating enough thanks to fill up even a short note. When researchers asked people to write responses to situations designed to elicit gratitude, most people drew from common expressions like “Thanks, have a great day” or “Oh, you shouldn’t have” and said that further appreciation was hard to express sufficiently. This takes practice!
But it’s worth the effort: several studies show that writing out your appreciation helps both the person who expressed the gratitude (you!) and the person who received it. Plus, sharing your gratitude is a great way to remind your friends how much you care about them.
This is what makes Valentine’s Day especially precious to me. I have never felt that this is holiday about couples- it’s a holiday about love! Sometimes “love” looks like a couple that’s madly infatuated with one another and ready to tell the world about it; I think that actually more often, it’s something else. Consider all of the people celebrating with a couple at wedding. Suppose there are 100 people there (actually a bit below the average number of wedding guests). Even if 50% of them are little-known extended family or other people’s plus ones, that’s fifty people who likely have some degree of love for them for what is presumably the only romantic relationship for the couple. I feel strongly about not taking that number of people for granted, and I like a holiday that reminds me to appreciate that and to let those people know. It’s great to make my loved ones smile and to share the positive things that others see in them.
Don’t forget to direct some of that appreciation to yourself!
Gratitude is one of the character strengths that positive psychology researchers Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman identified among 23 others. Knowing and applying your character strengths can improve your well-being, too!
One of my favorite television quotes comes from the Australian show “Offspring” (Don’t Google it- there are major spoilers! Just start watching, especially if you love medical shows and/or shows with big, complicated families). In one scene, Billie Proudman says to her sister, Nina, “Don’t stress about men. You’re too brilliant. If it happens, you’ll look back and think, ‘What a [terrible] waste of brain space that was.’ If it doesn’t happen, you’ve still got your brilliance.”
Nina is often labeled the “smart one” of the family, so Billie is probably talking about Nina’s intelligence when she mentions brilliance. But we all have our own bits of brilliance and strength- it just takes time to know what they are and how to use them.
Embrace and enjoy your brilliance, whatever it is, and have a wonderful Valentine’s Day!