5 more where-to-stay ideas in Phoenix, Arizona

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Getting older leads some folks to want to escape the winter weather here in Chicago. If warm weather’s your objective for your upcoming winter vacation – whether you simply hate the cold or just want to treat yourself – think Arizona. A very nice variety of Four-Diamond-and-better hotel accommodations await your pleasure. We mentioned a few Scottsdale/Phoenix accommodations here, and below are five more to consider:

Kimpton’s Hotel Palomar Phoenix opened in June 2012 at CityScape Phoenix’s hotel/residence/office complex.  The boutique Hotel Palomar Phoenix is an urban retreat that balances the energy of its city setting with Arizona’s laid-back lifestyle. Its 242 spacious guest rooms and suites all provide views of the surrounding city and mountains. Multi-use space of 10,000 square feet includes ten customizable meeting rooms. Its restaurant, Blue Hound Kitchen & Cocktails, features new American cuisine for lunch, dinner, late-night snacks and weekend brunch, and the cocktail program raises the bar for drink culture in the city. The third-floor outdoor pool terrace and adjacent Lustre Rooftop Garden bar provide a scenic venue for gathering.

Phoenix’s light rail line travels past Civic Space Park in Downtown Phoenix and towards the western end of the line, which terminates at Montebello and 19th avenues in Phoenix. Civic Space Park opened in 2009 and makes use of sustainable design to generate power, keep the area cool and capture rainwater.

The Sheraton Grand Phoenix (formerly the Sheraton Phoenix Downtown Hotel) , is located a block from the new Phoenix Convention Center. Its 1000 guest rooms make it the largest hotel in Greater Phoenix and in the entire Grand Canyon State.

The Sheraton conference center – more than 112,000 square feet of flexible meeting space – includes 17 meeting rooms, two ballrooms, two boardrooms and a terrace for outdoor events. High-speed Internet access and videoconferencing capabilities and an audiovisual staff are available on site.

When meeting attendees and their families are ready to unwind, they can do so outside at a 2,000-square foot outdoor pool and sundeck or inside at a 6,500-square foot fitness center and spa. The Sheraton Grand Phoenix also features a contemporary restaurant with a full bar, private dining room and outdoor seating. The hotel opened Oct. 1, 2008.

The Westin Phoenix Downtown provides another boutique lodging option in Phoenix’s urban core. Catering to discerning business travelers, it features 242 super-sized guest rooms (all of which are at least 540 square feet), and its upper-floor meeting spaces have floor-to-ceiling windows that afford mountain views. Province Urban Kitchen & Bar is lead by Chef Allison Bird and specializes in sustainable ingredients and features organic wines, plus an enclosed patio accented by a waterfall cascading down from the second-story Lapis pool.

And then there’s the Westin Kierland Resort and Spa where each eveningScottish bagpipes usher in the sunset in homage to Scottish immigrants’ contributions to Arizona’s railroads, mines and towns.

Patio at the Arrogant Butcher in downtown Phoenix

Since 1931 the Hilton Garden Inn Phoenix Downtown, a 12-story icon in Phoenix, has stood as a brilliant example of West Coast Art Deco architecture thoughtfully restored to that era’s glory. Come in and experience the swank and sophistication of a bygone era. The 24-feet-tall, two-story lobby features original marble floors, Deco-era Corinthian capitals, bronze elevator doors and original wrought iron details. All 170 guest rooms boast the brand’s signature bedding featuring fresh, white duvets and crisp linens. Relax in an ergonomic desk chair and write postcards or get some work done on a spacious and clutter-free work desk with. Enjoy the convenience of a mini fridge, microwave oven and Keurig coffee maker. Impressive window views in every room and suite. The Hitchcock Suite – which features a unique private terrace – stands as a tribute to the filmmaker who used the building in the opening sequence of “Psycho.”

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Vacation ideas in warm-winter Arizona

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Even when your Baby Boomer life is very comfortable, things can sometimes start to feel really low-key, even  routine. So it’s good to know about travel/vacation options that could revitalize you with their unexpected vibrancy. Arizona is one of the few states we’ve been to multiple times – and enjoyed very much each time. The folks from VisitPhoenix.com partnered recently with Lux Bar, 18 E. Bellvue Place, to showcase the winter joys of Arizona and invite Chicagoans to include this winter-warm state in their upcoming travel plans. Scottsdale serves as the main hub for Phoenix, Mesa and more and is continually growing and changing.
Sonoran Desert Scottsdale AZ 50349
Sonoran Desert Scottsdale AZ 50349 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Wineries in the desert?

Yes! Downtown Scottsdale features four Arizona wine tasting rooms that tell the story of the state’s 100 award-winning wineries including LDV Wine Gallery – eat, sip and taste on their two shaded patios. Further south in the Wilcox wine region, check out Salvatore Vineyards, Carlson Creek Vineyard, and the Sue Vino Winery, all of which serve, along with the four tasting rooms, as part of the Scottsdale Wine Trail.
Scottsdale is also now home to a unique cocktail bar called Counter Intuitive. Open only on Friday and Saturday nights, 8pm to 2am, it rotates its decor and menus every few months – from a New Orleans antique shop or Cuban hideaway, to an Agua Caliente Racetrack during Prohibition or a Chinatown hangout. You never know what kind of ambiance to expect – just that it’ll be interesting and stimulating – which gives even full-time area residents something new to get excited about.
Southwest culture and art

Besides imbibing, of course, other activities may call to you on your visit. You might like to go exploring the cultural footprint of the Southwest’s Native American nations during Native Trails. This is a series of noontime festivals that tell stories of Native culture through song and dance. Free, at Scottsdale’s Civic Center Park January through March. Then you can always visit the Arts District where dozens of creative minds have their shops;

Soleri bridge in the desert

extended hours on Thursday evenings let you take the Scottsdale ArtWalk. Or take a self-guided tour of the Scottsdale Public Art Program (love the holiday musical greeting on their website!) of some 50 artworks, including well-known pieces like Robert Indiana’s iconic “LOVE”sculpture and Soleri Bridge & Plaza.

Challenge yourself!
Wanna be a cowboy? Almost all local resorts in Scottsdale offer trail rides and communal cookouts, but how about this for a challenge?! Arizona Cowboy College gives you a closeup view of what it’s like to be a true cowboy. Learn horsemanship skills – yes, serious things like cutting, branding, inoculating, dehorning and driving cattle – and then go out and do that stuff on the range. Yikes! We’d have to sign up for an awful lot of horsemanship skills before even thinking about attempting the rest of it. Hmm. Wonder if trying this at a ripe old age like 60 would ever result in actually achieving such skills? Hey, who cares? If it’s on your bucket list, go for it! If your taste leans more towards a less vigorous horse-related activity, check out Fort McDowell Adventures for a trail ride.
Or how about learning (or at least trying) to drive like the pros on a racetrack? Bondurant Racing School experts teach high-performance racing skills on a 1.6 mile, multi-configuration track. From four hours to four days, the school offers racing courses for every level of driver. If you’ve already graduated to a huge Cadillac or Buick, consider how this might shake up your life.
Green Zebra Adventures

Then there are adventure tours that include climbing mountains, stargazing, hiking and bicycle riding. Try Green Zebra Adventures or a trek with Arizona Outback Adventures (AOA) that includes the history and gelology of the landscape and some insights into the desert’s flora and fauna.

If you like to plan your own adventures. get yourself a copy of the Scottsdale Area Hiking and Trail Guide from ExperienceScottsdale.com.

Where to stay
In case you’ve been there before and would like to indulge at a new top-of-the-line location, three new luxury resorts are coming on the scene in the Scottsdale area. Hyatt Corporation just opened Andaz Scottsdale Resort and Spa. Then in February 2017 Mountain Shadows debuts. Then mark your calendar for late 2018 for the unveiling of Ritz-Carlton Paradise Valley.
Fly the skies in hot air balloons from The Boulders Resort

Other facilities to consider: The Boulders Resort & Spa. One-hundred-sixty private casitas (small individual houses) set out in the Sonoran Desert just far enough to be free of light pollution – the canopy of stars out there is magnificent and seemingly endless. The resort just underwent a multimillion dollar makeover that incorporates the area’s indigenous roots and Old West charm along with new furnishings and upgraded fixtures in bathrooms. Enjoy your private fireplace and cozy patio. Commune with 12-million-year-old natural rock formations. Enjoy drinks in the redesigned lounge bar and dig the Southwestern cuisine in the Palo Verde restaurant.

Camelback Mountain Resort and Spa

Or check out the new custom-designed furniture in the completely restored and modernized 60-year-old Hotel Valley Ho that welcomed Hollywood’s finest during its heyday in the 50s and 60s. There are dozens more places in a wide range of prices, including the wellness experience at Sanctuary on Camelback Mountain Resort & Spa‘s Spa House.

Lux Bar hosting
Lux Bar welcome Arizona Tourism attendees with tasty appetizers that led to a first course of rich crab bisque, then the diner’s choice of broiled skirt steak with caramelized onions and maitre d’ butter, or sauteed whitefish with lobster butter, or penne pasta with dried tomato, parmesan, arugula, and zucchini, seasoned with thyme and roasted garlic and topped with smoked Nueske’s Farm smoked chicken. Entrees were accompanied with creamed spinach and mashed potatoes served family style. Dessert was an old fashioned chocolate cake with dark chocolate ganache and chocolate frosting – perhaps a new “near-death by chocolate.” High five to the Lux Bar culinary and service teams.
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If warm-weather-destinations are on your agenda, consider Arizona/Scottsdale/Phoenix/Mesa this season. And if happy hour’s on your agenda, try Lux Bar’s new one 3-6pm Tuesday to Friday.
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Finally! Activity tracker dress-ups for less

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Fitbit Flex in its original rubbery band

OK. I’ll start with a bit of a rant about how much I love my activity tracker, the Fitbit Flex. It has changed my life. I’m healthier, fitter, and 30 pounds lighter – a goal that had been receding further and further with every passing year until this tracker came along. It has amazing capabilities for such a small device. But truth be told, it’s not the most stylish thing to wear on your arm, especially if you’re going somewhere dressed up. I accidentally found a way to hide my tracker on dressier occasions by fastening it a little looser and then slipping it inside a big black plastic bangle bracelet. No one has ever been the wiser. And that bracelet looks at least business-casual dressy but doesn’t work well for fancier occasions.

I had seen last year some classy-looking ornaments and covers and bands for activity trackers, but the prices were outrageous and some of the bracelet covers extremely heavy. Now, to the rescue comes FunktionalWearables.com. They’ve got a wide variety of beautifully designed charms, bands and actual jewelry pieces that don’t just disguise your tracker; instead they make a serious fashion statement. Whether you like like your look flashy, bold or simple, you’re bound to find a design that calls your name. For those of us already dedicated to tracking our steps and so on, this is fabulously exciting news.
If you own and wear an activity tracker – or want to but never wanted something that ugly on your arm – I seriously urge you to visit FunktionalWearables and take your time looking over the merchandise. Affordable beautiful and fun. Would make a fabulous gift for someone who has a tracker or for whom you want to buy one. This line of products includes – mirabile dictu! – even stylish necklaces that hold and conceal that little smart thing that counts your steps. Absolute genius at affordable prices. They start at around $15 for a simple charm or enhancement and go up to maybe $50-ish for a gorgeous engraved silver necklace and earring set. Unbelievable.
Transform your activity tracker! Looks even better without the bandage on the finger.

Take a look. Choose a style or two (after all, they are affordable) that makes you feel good and buy. Then walk – even if it’s on a pad in your living room (which works well if you listen to your favorite rockin’ music ). You will be the happier – and the more stylish – for it, I promise.

You guys are offering some sure-fire-win products. Thank you – and congratulations!
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Gift guide 2016 – consumables and more

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Gifts can be so hard to choose.  Especially as we grow older, many of us don’t need any more tsatskes (pronounced in some circles choch-kees, it’s a Yiddish expression for “stuff”), so we tend to go for consumables – and most of us do enjoy receiving such things as candy, coffee, popcorn, etc. So let’s start with a few suggestions for unique wines and spirits and places to treat your friends/family to dinner on Christmas/Eve.
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Sparkle the holidays with Segura Viudas

For sparkling-wine-loving friends. Segura Viudas Brut (SRP $10) or Freixenet Cordon Negro (in the sexy black bottle – SRP $9), both Spanish cavas that bring full, elegant flavor for value prices. Wonderful with food. Perfect for toasting. And just plain fun to enjoy in front of the fireplace (or a video of a burning fireplace).  Or give them a fireplace DVD for their VCR ($10).

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For luxury wine-loving friends. Check out the reviews here, here, here and here for ideas for luxurious wines that are sure to make your friends feel truly appreciated if they love full, rich wines with their special meals. SRP $20 up to $100-plus.
HIbiki Harmony Suntory Whisky

For whiskey-loving friends. Japanese Hibiki Harmony Suntory whisky – floral notes play just a small part in this elegant, smooth, balanced and subtly sweet blend of whiskies. Plus it comes in a beautiful bottle. SRP ~$70.

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Oh, and here’s a cool new book about whiskey – Whiskey: A spirited Story with 75 Classic and Original Cocktails by Michael Dietsch. It just happens to be written by a pal I met during our Freixenet trip to Spain. He’s very entertaining and knows a lot about whiskey. Great gift for one who loves whiskey, making cocktails with whiskey and enjoys a good read.

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Cool recipes for Jack Daniels seasonal whiskies

And if you want to offer something really unique, Jack Daniels has a whole line of whiskies, including Gentleman Jack (sweet vanilla, citrus, spice), Jack Daniels Tennessee Fire (red hot cinnamon and a touch of sweetness, and a seasonal release called Winter Jack. It’s a mixture of apple cider liqueur and JD whiskey with holiday spices. It’s  very light – not serious sippin’ whiskey – but it makes some fun cocktails. Magnify the image to get the ingredients and instructions. Ah, I can feel myself in front of a fire sipping one of these homey concoctions, can’t you?

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For after dinner. Amaro is the name the Italians give to the herbal-infused liqueurs they serve after their fabulous many-course Italian meals. Chicago’s own maker right here in the city makes Cinpatrazzo with a secret herbal potion that truly settles the stomach after a big meal – and tastes delicious while doing so. This locally made amaro will impress your giftee with your good taste – and let her/him know how much you care. And, oh, enjoy the beautiful Cinpatrazzo websiteSRP ~$35
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MAGNUM bottle with Santa hat

And then there’s MAGNUM™ Highland Cream Liqueur, a silky smooth blend of Scotch whisky and pure cream that brims with tastes of chocolate, caramel and rich toffee. What a fabulous dessert drink to serve with your holiday cookie tray. Or try these scrumptious Magnum drink recipes.

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For your pizza-loving friends/family – Brunch!  Who’d a thunk you could turn pizza into a fabulous brunch menu? Robert’s Pizza Company, has done it in style. Take your gang between 11:30am and 3 pm and check out the mouth-watering-sounding LOXZA PIZZA (with lox, double cream  cheese, chives, red onion, chopped egg, dill and capers) or a cool sweet treat like Robert’s very own ‘ZA DOUGH CINNAMON BUN. ‘Za Dough is their own recipe that was 15 years in the making. Oh, and try their new brunch cocktails like the BRUNCH MONEY COCKTAIL, made with Patron XO Café liqueur, hot coffee and heavy cream.
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And speaking of meals, how about taking your giftee out for a holiday meal? Check out some Chicago restaurants open for Christmas/Eve.
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While it’s always best if you can figure out something a particular individual is likely to enjoy, you might be one of us who is not blessed with gift-choosing acumen. Or if you’re blessed with lots of friends/family who have everything – or almost – here’s a brief random assortment of product reviews you that might fit as gifts.
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For your grandchildren – give twice. From Cricket Media comes a collection of ad-free kids’ magazines for all ages. I took the samples they sent on a visit to my grandkids – ages 9, 7 and 4 – and they all immediately got lost inside the pages of their very own age-appropriate publication. I call that a very positive reaction to the material. Games, puzzles, stories and more. Check ’em out: BABYBUG (6 mos to 3 yrs), LADYBUG (3 to 6 yrs), SPIDER (6 to 9 yrs), and CRICKET (9 to 14 yrs). Hey, something besides digital screens to keep them interested and challenged! On sale for the month of December, subscriptions are $29.95 (regular $33.95) and when you subcribe they will also give a subscription to your choice of one of two charitable organizations. Visit them at www.cricketmedia.com.
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Bil-Jac apple Dessert Jacs – yes, dogs love ’em

For your dog. Ever feel sorry for your dog because all s/he ever gets to eat is dry brown nuggets? How about a dog dessert for the holidays!? Bil-Jac is offering this year Apple Caramel dog treats – with real chicken as the #1 ingredient. My daughters’ dogs LOVE the taste. And it’s just fun to treat your dog to something special during the holidays – oh, alright, any time at all. Look for the brand at your Chicago neighborhood PetSmart, Pet Supplies Plus, and Petco locations, plus some private pet stores like Let’s Pet, Ruff ‘N’ Stuff Pet Center and others. Anyway, don’t dogs just love anything you get for them?

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Snap Power faceplates with something extra

For your home. A nightlight that doesn’t stick out from the wall and/or look silly sounds good, doesn’t it? Snap Power makes one that’s totally integrated into an ordinary-looking dual-electrical-outlet faceplate. Some reviewers say they won’t shut off and that the electrical connection is iffy. And a hitch with this and with the USB-charger-equipped model (next paragraph) is that you can’t use them with those high-tech plates with the reset buttons that are now required by most cities to be installed anywhere near where there’s water – usually kitchens and bathrooms.

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The Snap Power USB-charger-equipped faceplate is a great idea, in that you don’t have to dig out another USB-charging device and plug that in first. For those of us not too comfortable with messing with power sources, it’s a bit daunting to face turning off the power to your outlet before you install the new faceplates. These are both cool ideas and the products look nice. Just to be sure it’s right for you or your giftee, read the Amazon reviews before you make a purchase decision.
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For your snoring spouse/SO.  In case you want to give something you believe might be helpful to a spouse who suffers – or makes you suffer – with snoring problems, only consider this if you’re pretty sure s/he won’t be insulted! Rest-Rite makes a back-sleeper’s aid that’s designed to gently remind you to sleep on your sides instead of your back – when snoring often kicks in. These are disposable (wish they were reusable) kinda big (about 4 inches in diameter) stick-on molded plastic bumps that stay in place and prevent you from rolling onto your back in the middle of the night. We were surprised to find that it really did stay in place, in spite of some tossing and turning – which we did carefully so as not to have to be reminded mid-turn that we were passing by our back-sleeping option. Gotta think this could help those who drift onto their backs and can’t help sawing logs. You can try a sample pack of 7 for ~$17. Even though that seems high, how can you put a price on your mental health? Let us know how it works for you.

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7 tips to make the most of your year-end giving

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A Mazda MPV minivan being donated to a charita...
A Mazda MPV minivan being donated to a charitable organization is secured by chain onto the flatbed of a tow tuck. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Even if you’re still in the middle of your holiday shopping, you might also be thinking about how to make your final charitable contributions of the year. In 2015, twenty-nine percent of charitable giving occurred in December – eleven percent in the last three days of the year.* In case you’re not donating a car, use these final weeks of the year to apply a few year-end money-giving tips from World Vision programs for under-served children:

  1. Keep it simple. Most organizations offer a wide variety of ways to make a difference. For donors who feel overwhelmed or are not sure where their passions lie, look for a general fund to make the greatest impact. For example, the World Vision Gift Catalog offers an excellent option to give where most needed to help children and families in areas of greatest need.
  2. Invest in the future. Explore options to change a child’s world for good; it will make an impact on the future while also providing a tax deduction for readers. World Vision offers the option to invest in a full-year of child sponsorship through a single transaction; the benefit will accrue throughout the life of the child in 2017, while readers can claim the deduction on their 2016 taxes.
  3. Give someone else’s money. Hundreds of companies across the country match employee contributions to nonprofits, doubling the impact without requiring the donor to give another cent!
  4. Forget the checkbook. Generosity comes in many forms. Donating valuable personal property such as farm equipment, royalties and even jewelry is an innovative way to turn non-cash assets into life-transforming gifts. Check with local organizations to see how non-cash assets can be donated; national organizations may have guidelines posted online, such as World Vision’s guides for Planned Giving.
  5. “Double” your tax break. Readers can “double” their tax break by donating appreciated assets such as stock and real estate. Stock that has grown in value can be donated for a charitable deduction for the current value, and the capital gains tax will be eliminated on the appreciation. A gift of real estate will also valued at its current valuation for charitable deduction purposes, enabling the donor to avoid capital gains taxes.
  6. Consider itemizing. When readers file their taxes, if their total deductions – state and local taxes, mortgage interest, charitable donations, etc. – are greater than the standard deduction, they may come out ahead by itemizing.
  7. Remember the deadline. Gifts must be completed by midnight on December 31, 2016, to be eligible to receive a charitable deduction for the 2016 tax year. Keep in mind that stocks or other securities may take two to three weeks to process at this time of year, so don’t delay. Right now’s the time.

*Network for Good: http://www.networkforgood.com/digitalgivingindex/

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Holiday happiness – try gratitude therapy

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New Orleans: Thank you message in the grotto o...
New Orleans: Thank you message in the grotto of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church; added by those for whom prayer or miracles were granted (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Gratitude – just the act of thinking about how grateful you are for the good things in your life – improves your attitude, your mood and, yes, even your health. HeartMath.org has scientific proof of how it works, and they even get hired by corporations to teach executives how to feel more gratitude – because it also improves your ability to be creative and to make sound decisions.

What? you say. Too good to be true! But in fact, it really makes a difference. And if this season tends to give you the holiday blues, here’s a little schedule – with thanks to Health.com magazine for the plan – by which you can teach yourself how to feel more gratitude and gain some of those benefits.
For the first week…
  • Notice the good. Every morning think of three things you’re grateful for. Doesn’t matter what they are or how small they are. Can be as simple as “I woke up this morning” or “I have enough milk for my coffee today” or “Knowing my friends.” But make sure you think of three different things each morning. It won’t work if you just mindlessly repeat the same things each day.
  • Put it in writing. Write or record the things you’re grateful for. Journaling works for some, but you could also text your three things to a friend or record a voice memo on your phone.
  • Use terms of positive feelings. When you think, write or record, use words like gifts, blessings, good fortune and abundance. Avoid left-handed expressions of gratitude like “thank heavens, this finally happened” or “it’s about time!” or “it’s the least they could do.”
For the second week…
  • Express thanks to others. Every day tell someone thank you for something very specific they do/did. “I really appreciate that you gave me your seat on the bus.” “Thank you for taking the garbage out in time for the truck.”
  • Put it in writing. Write a note to a friend, family member or mentor expressing your heartfelt appreciation for something s/he did that affected you in a positive way. If possible, read it out loud to the person or schedule a video chat to share it.
  • Volunteer to help someone else. People commonly feel more grateful for their own blessings when they do something for others. Carve out some time and sign up to help in your family, church, community or city in some way.
For the third week…
  • See the good everywhere you look. Notice the good things done by others in your family, school, neighborhood or civic group. When you think of your three blessings each day, also recognize others who perform heroic or even simply kind acts.
  • Find and record silver linings. Think of three less-than-ideal experiences you’ve had recently and discover ways in which they might have benefited you in some unexpected way. Sometimes, for example, getting laid off can lead to an even better opportunity. Ending a difficult relationship may lead to greater peace of mind.
  • Pay it forward at work. Workplaces can be the least gratitude-inspiring environments of all. Change up the vibe in your workplace by showing a peer, an intern or a boss some appreciation. And don’t be surprised if your gratitude comes back to you in return.

Rinse and repeat. Endlessly. And see what happens. Happy holidays!

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