There are many things in our lives that are challenging, and we are all intimately familiar with disappointments, worries and setbacks. While we can’t avoid day to day struggles, one skill we can cultivate to help us navigate our hardships is gratitude. Gratitude, whether expressed overtly or simply reflected upon, is well known to have many benefits. The practice of gratitude:
• Facilitates connections and strengthens relationships
• Improves physical health (including pain reduction, better sleep, and commitment to self-care)
• Diminishes attachment to negative emotions
• Enhances empathy and compassion
• Reduces aggression and competitiveness
• Improves confidence and self-esteem (and greater appreciation for the accomplishments of others)
• Decreases feelings of stress and contributes to resilience (perhaps even recovery from trauma)
Right now many people are especially aware of loss. The loss of connections, purpose, rituals, structure, predictability and security. There is no denying these losses or peoples’ need to attend to their grief, anxiety or vulnerability. But it is also a critical time to orient ourselves toward gratitude, which helps mitigate these negative feelings. Grief and gratitude are not mutually exclusive and there is room for both.
The Wall Street Journal recently had an excellent article on gratitude, “A Surprising Way to Reduce Stress: how your gratitude can boost your mental health and help you cope with coronavirus anxiety (May 4, 2020).” Here are some key take-aways:
• “Reminding ourselves what we are grateful for is one of the most powerful ways to boost our psychological immune system, which safeguards our mental health and keeps us resilient,” according to Jacqueline Sperling, Psychologist and Director of Training and Research at the McLean Anxiety Mastery Program.
• “Our immune system is compromised in a crisis, by anxiety or depression, so it’s important to be mindful about recharging it,” she also notes.
• “We need to challenge negative thoughts and reframe them in a way that is more positive to help regulate our emotions,” says Elizabeth Pinnel, Professor of Psychology, University of Vermont.
• “Psychological well-being depends less on the things that happen to us and more on the things we pay attention to,” states Dr. Alex Korb, a Neuroscientist, and author of The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time.
• “Gratitude will shift your brain’s attention. It’s not dependent on good things happening to you, but how you respond to what is happening to you,” he continues.
How to Practice Gratitude
Dr. Robert Emmons, a Professor of Psychology at the University of California, and author of Gratitude Works: A 21 Day Program for Creating Emotional Prosperity, suggests:
Keep a Gratitude Journal – Write down what you’re grateful for each day and reflect on your feelings and the depth of your gratitude. Writing things down make the feeling more tangible. Refer to them as gifts to underscore their importance.
Give Back – Find ways to use your strengths and talents to help others.
Go Through the Motions – Performing grateful motions may help you trigger real gratitude. Smile, say thank you. Fake it till you make it.
Watch Your Language – Grateful people use thankful words: gifts, blessing, fortune, abundance. Less grateful people are preoccupied with burdens, deprivations and complaints and their words reflect that.
Practice the Three S’s – Surprise, which amplifies positive feelings. Specific, which focuses on the concrete ways in which you are supported and sustained by others. Scarcity. Is there a benefit to the current situation that you will not have in the future?
Write a Letter - It may make others feel good but it also strengthens the brain’s gratitude circuitry and activates the region of the brain that produces dopamine.
Say Thank You - It’s mutually beneficial to express appreciation.
And a few more suggestions, by by Dr. Korb:
Take Action – By doing so we are telling our brain this matters and that feeling gets highlighted by the brain’s circuitry.
Think of Happy Memories - which increases serotonin.
Focus on the Future - imagining what will feel good will help prevent you from taking things for granted when things get back to normal.
The practice of gratitude improves mental, physical and relational well-being. It is one the most valuable things we can do right now to impact the overall experience of happiness, and the effects tend to be long-lasting. And I think we can all benefit from some of those positives right now.