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Fill your cornucopia: Finding gratitude and abundance during challenging times

Nov. 18, 2020
Many people are feeling increased anxiety with the changes in our work and personal lives brought on by the past few years. It can be harder to feel thankful during such times, but Julie Whiteley, BS, RDH, shows us how we can still find abundance.

Fall is usually my favorite time of the year. Here in New England, it is an experience that I look forward to. I love the crisp air balanced by the warm sun. No matter where you look, it is a kaleidoscope of beautiful, warm colors. It’s a season filled with pumpkin patches, apple picking, hayrides, corn mazes, and hot apple cider. And where there is fresh cider … there are warm cider donuts! The weather is cool enough to break out flannel shirts, warm sweaters, and favorite boots. The cooler temperatures allow us to go back to baking and enjoying comfort foods like chowders, soups, and stews, which remind us of the upcoming holidays. Fall is a season of harvest and thankfulness.

The past few falls have certainly felt different, and for me and many of my peers with whom I have spoken, it is much more of a stretch to get in touch with those feelings of gratitude and abundance right now. We've endured some unimaginable changes as we navigated living and working through the upheaval in our profession and our daily lives brought on by COVID-19. 2020 and 2021 were years of polarity, and emotion was at a palpable high. Although many aspects of life have gotten back to normal, this past year has brought different challenges, events and topics that created more polarization. Additionally, it seems people are complaining of being tired, more stressed, and feeling the pain points that can come with all we have experienced over what feels like such a long period of time.

For many of us, even those who are typically optimists, it’s taking a toll physically and emotionally. We are faced with questions, uncertainty, conflict, added social isolation, and changes to our “normal” that can leave us anxious, tired, and feeling less than grateful. We can be directly impacted by our individual situations and feelings. Further, we are often indirectly affected as we can be on the receiving end of the stress and anxiety that our patients may be feeling.

Of course, mental health crises benefit most from professional help, but what about those of us who just feel lost, overwhelmed, or down right now? Common sense and research suggest practicing gratitude can lift spirits, but we also know that it can be harder to practice when we are feeling bogged down emotionally.

An image synonymous with this time of year is the cornucopia. It's a symbol of abundance and nourishment, often depicted as overflowing. How do we rise above a less-than-abundant mindset to find the thankfulness and gratitude needed to fill our own personal cornucopia?

Following are five things you can do today to fill your cornucopia.

1. Thank someone

Giving thanks can be done in person, by letter, or even mentally. Although there is no proof of cause and effect, most studies published on expressing gratitude support an association between gratitude and well-being. Dr. Martin E. P. Seligman, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, tested the impact of positive psychology interventions among participants. Those who were asked to write and personally deliver a letter of gratitude to someone immediately exhibited an increase in happiness scores. “This impact was greater than that from any other intervention, with benefits lasting for a month.”1

My father-in-law instituted a practice many years ago in which each November he would write a letter to one person who touched his life that year. He fondly referred to it as his “Thanksgiving Hall of Fame” and said it was an activity that brought him much joy, peace, and thankfulness. As the 2012 recipient, I can express firsthand how much that letter meant to me as well. In fact, anytime I have received a note of appreciation or kindness, I have carefully tucked it away in a small chest. There have been countless times over the years that I have reviewed the contents of that box and had my heart filled with gratitude, often at the times I needed it most. If you don’t have something like that, I would suggest you start. It is a wonderful place to go on those days when you may need a reminder of the difference you make in the lives of those around you.

The thank-you doesn’t always have to be in person or written down; it can also be done mentally. If you haven't watched the 1997 Lifetime Achievement Award acceptance speech of Mr. Rogers (of children’s television), I would highly recommend it. Instead of a typical acceptance, he asks the audience to take 10 seconds to mentally thank someone who cared for them, wanted the best for them, and helped “love them into being.” Just watching and participating in that three-minute, 12-second video is a perfect example of how powerful a thank-you can be.

Even something as simple as a kind word or a compliment toward another person can create a ripple effect of abundance. A 2018 study showed that expressing gratitude for another improves the well-being for both the expresser and recipient. Despite that, we often undervalue the positive impact and overestimate how awkward the recipient may feel, and it limits us from this simple yet impactful practice.2

2. Find things each day you're grateful for

This can be simple, but I used to make it so much harder than it needed to be. I would get stuck in feeling like I had to come up with huge things, not realizing I was taking for granted so much that I had to be thankful for. A quote that helped me shift that mindset was: “What if I woke up tomorrow with only what I expressed gratitude for today?”

With that, my list became easy to establish. Think of how you feel when your power is out, or your hot water isn't working. Electricity and a hot shower sound amazing, right? Recall how you felt the last time you were sick and how good it is to feel healthy. Think of the people and things you love most and how thankful you are for them. Some days my list has something simple that brings me joy, like a relaxing cup of coffee, a good conversation with my son, spending time with my two dogs, a favorite song on the radio, or a quick walk outside during my lunch hour. When you think of if that simply, the cornucopia can fill quickly.

Another shift that helped me was removing the words “I have to” and replacing them with “I get to.” Instead of “I have to exercise,” I can say “I am healthy enough that I get to exercise.” Instead of “I have to work today,” I can say “I get to earn a living and have the opportunity to help someone else.”

This way of thinking goes hand in hand with taking a less than desirable situation and saying to yourself “This is good because…” For example, I have a long commute that can often leave me stuck in a lot of traffic. “This is good because it gives me a little more time to listen to this great podcast I’ve been following.”

We have so much more power over our mindset than we realize, and it just takes some reframing and some practice to harness that power.

3. Meditation/breathing

I used to refrain from this because I felt like I couldn’t do it right, and I had too many other things I had to do that “were more important than just sitting there.” What I learned is that taking even five minutes to sit quietly and focus on my breathing helps me regain feelings of calmness when I am stressed and helps me to be more open to gratitude and abundance. When I find myself distracted, I imagine my exhaling is carrying those thoughts away. This is something you can walk through on your own, or there are plenty of guided meditations available online. In fact, I recently got a smart watch and I have it set up to remind me several times per day to take a moment to breathe. It even walks me through the inhales and exhales with a vibration on my wrist and tracks my pulse rate.

Over recent weeks, my coworkers have decided to work together to try to find ways to decrease stress and increase positivity and mindfulness. We start each day with a “motivational moment” in which a member of the team will share an inspirational quote to kick off our morning huddle. This allows us to start the day with thoughtfulness and positivity. We also try to incorporate a five- to 15-minute meditation into our day for those who are interested and available. We immediately saw the benefits of taking time together as a group to recenter ourselves during what sometimes can be long and stressful days.

There is a practice called gratitude meditation, which is a type of meditation that focuses on expressing gratitude for the things in your life. If you are not ready for meditation, even something like keeping a gratitude journal has been shown to have similar effects. One 2016 study that was focused on the effects of gratitude meditation on health professionals found that it can reliably increase feelings of gratitude and increase compassionate care toward patients.3

4. Practice kindness

Simple acts of kindness and paying it forward positively impact both the giver and receiver. A 2006 study published in the Journal of Happiness Studies showed the close association between kindness and happiness. Simply by counting acts of kindness for one week, people appear to be happier and more grateful.4

Something as simple as holding a door, letting someone cut into the flow of traffic, and offering a smile boosts your mood. Think of the countless times you are there for patients who may need to share something with which they are struggling. It feels good to be able to do that and can set the tone for bringing more gratitude. Recently, I had a patient share with me how much the person working the counter at her local coffee shop helped her turn around what started as a really bad day. She was moved to tears, and it inspired her to want to offer that same kindness to someone else—and she did. For me, it is hard to not feel gratitude when I consider the ripple effect one simple act can have on others.

5. Laughter

In the words of Charles Dickens, “There is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good humor.”

I come from a large extended family of people who live by the adage that daily laughter is good for your soul. I learned at a young age that if you look hard enough, you can always find something that makes you laugh. It is a pretty amazing feeling to be given the gift of bringing laughter to another. Further, as I’ve rolled through some of the ups and downs of my life, my ability to keep a sense of humor has kept me afloat.

Studies have shown that laughter can decrease stress-making hormones such as cortisol, epinephrine, and growth hormone. Laughter secretes endorphins and alters dopamine and serotonin activity.5 Laughter can relax you and create positive thoughts, so seek out those individuals in your life who make you laugh, watch a favorite comedy, and just look around … there is plenty to laugh about each day.

During this most unique Thanksgiving season, challenge yourself to fill your cornucopia. Practicing gratitude is like building a muscle through exercise. The more you do it, the easier and more habit-forming it becomes. And just like with slow and consistent efforts to increase regular physical exercise and fitness, gradually increasing your positivity and gratitude muscles can result in feeling healthier and less sluggish. Don’t look for extraordinary events or moments; focus on paying attention to what is around you, looking for the positive, and you will experience the rewards. The other amazing thing is that positive energy is as contagious as negative energy. You have the opportunity with a positive light to impact not just your own well-being, but that of so many.

Best wishes for a harvest of abundance!

Editor's note: Originally posted in 2020 and updated regularly


1.     Seligman MEP, Steen TA, Park N, Peterson C. Positive psychology progress: Empirical validation of interventions. Am Psychol. 2005;60:410-21. 10.1037/0003-066X.60.5.410.

2.     Kumar A, Epley N. Undervaluing gratitude: Expressers misunderstand the consequences of showing appreciation. Psychol Sci. 2018;29(9):1423-1435. doi:10.1177/0956797618772506

3.     Rao N, Kemper KJ. Online training in specific meditation practices improves gratitude, well-being, self-compassion, and confidence in providing compassionate care among health professionals. J Evid Based Complementary Altern Med. 2017;22(2):237-241. doi:10.1177/2156587216642102

4.     Otake K, Shimai S, Tanaka-Matsumi J, et al. Happy people become happier through kindness: A counting kindnesses intervention. J Happiness Stud. 2006;7(3):361-375. www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1820947/.

5.     Yim J. Therapeutic benefits of laughter in mental health: A theoretical review. Tohoku J Exp Med. 2016;239(3):243-249. doi:10.1620/tjem.239.243

Julie Whiteley, BS, RDH, is certified in human resources. She holds degrees in business administration and dental hygiene and has worked extensively in both fields. She is on the faculty of Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences University in Boston. Julie bridges her knowledge and experience from business, clinical hygiene, and teaching to deliver information and programs that enhance dental practices. Contact her at [email protected].

About the Author

Julie Whiteley, BS, RDH

Julie Whiteley, BS, RDH, is certified in human resources. She holds degrees in business administration and dental hygiene and has worked extensively in both fields. She is on the faculty of Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences University in Boston. Julie bridges her knowledge and experience from business, clinical hygiene, and teaching to deliver information and programs that enhance dental practices. Contact her at [email protected].