Each year around mid-December, I start wishing people a happy new year. I need to admit, it’s been a somewhat rhetorical tradition — until this year. 

With a little reflection, I realized that there could be a causal relationship between the rituals I associate with our Season of Gratitude (around Thanksgiving), our Season of Generosity (December’s many holidays) and achieving a happy new year. 

As I mentioned last month, psychological research shows that the choice we make to notice gratitude and practice generosity can reliably increase meaningful happiness and life satisfaction. When we notice opportunities for gratitude and find ways to express authentic generosity, we strengthen the roots of our own well-being and lay the groundwork for our own meaningful happiness. 

Professionals and scientists in the new field of Positive Psychology point to simple gratitude and generosity exercises that can be taught. They uplift us and generate measurable improvements in subjective happiness (even decreases in depression). They can shine a light on those experiences and emotions in life that make us feel that we are flourishing. 

The time around Thanksgiving and the other winter holidays gives us a ritualized opportunity to proactively create behavioral and emotional building blocks to create a happy new year if we are mindful of them. 

A dose of gratitude

A little imagination lets us use the winter holiday rituals to set up some habits and lay groundwork for achieving happiness all year.

For example, with Thanksgiving, we can recommit to paying attention to life’s bounty even as we work to counter the areas of “lack” in our lives. In the midst of trying economic times, “gratitude journals” can focus on noting those experiences that have grown our heart space. A little attention can focus us on gratitude for the many intangibles that create loving relationships with friends, spouse and family. 

“Gratitude conversations” can intensify the happiness-building benefits that come from noticing gratitude by adding the additional component of generosity. The tradition of giving during the December holidays creates a segue to deliberately initiating the practice of gratitude conversations. These conversations can be informal over a cup of coffee, beginning with “Dad, I want to tell you how much it means to me that you….” 

They can also be added to other holiday rituals. For example, when it’s time to share the gifts we have so carefully selected for each other, we can precede the gift by telling our loved one a special reason they are appreciated. To prepare for this, the holidays then can become a period of mini-reflections on gratitude and expressions of generosity. 

Generosity is own reward

The desire to express generosity exists naturally in our gene pool to help us build community. Historically, it has helped us achieve the social cohesiveness we rely on for survival as a species. 

Research, common sense and reflection on our own experience of offering generosity show that practicing acts of generosity is uplifting. Generosity brings its own rewards. 

When we give gifts we create opportunities for gratitude for the recipient. When we have given a gift, it multiplies the benefit of the gift with an intangible — if we generously allow space to acknowledge gratitude from the recipient. 

So many of us deflect gratitude for a gift in embarrassment rather than allowing it to flow into us and buoy us up. In doing so, we give the recipient an opportunity to add another building block to their own happiness resources. 

Preparing for happiness

Gratitude and generosity are each their own blessing and flip sides of the same coin. At the holidays, we, unfortunately, can experience them as burdens. 

Gratitude becomes a burden when we judge that our own generosity has fallen short. So it can take a disciplined heart to focus on gratitude and generosity without guilt. In so doing, we create opportunities for others to also experience the intangible blessings of gratitude and generosity. 

Our culture’s winter holiday celebrations have the potential for cultivating more people who experience a profound sense of well-being and habits of gratitude and generosity that generate meaningful happiness. 

These holidays and their traditions offer us opportunities to set up conditions for a happy new year. We can pay attention to the opportunities they present to be conscious about practicing behaviors that heighten gratitude and generosity. 

When being mindful of these happiness-building habits is extended into the new year, wishing our friends and family a “happy new year” is more than rhetoric. Even extending that authentic wish for a “happy new year” to chance encounters with strangers in the grocery store can help to set up a fine culture of giving and gratitude.

LAURA WORTH, MSW, is a life and business coach. She is also the publisher and editor of community-based, neighborhood-specific Web directories for local health and wellness arts via SoundWellnessCommunity.com. Or visit www.coachworth.com.