Seemed like a good time for this blog.
By now, most of us have heard gratefulness is one of the strongest predictors of life satisfaction and happiness. We know it beneficially impacts our mental state, mood, and physical health.
When things continuously go wrong, however, it can be a real challenge to feel grateful. I am not sure how you feel, but the
longer this pandemic has drawn out, and especially since hitting the second wave of this COVID-19 outbreak, it has been harder to remain positive, and grateful.
Yet gratitude has also been found to be a powerful inoculation against things that suck.
In his book, Dr. Robert Emmons (2008) talks about his research on gratitude’s effects: “We have discovered that a person who experiences gratitude is able to cope more effectively with everyday stress, may show increased resilience in the face of trauma-induced stress, and may recover more quickly from illness and benefit from greater physical health.”
Ryan Fehr, a world-renowned expert on gratitude agrees, “During a difficult time, gratitude is more important than ever,” he says. “Research shows that gratitude can help us cope with traumatic events, regulate our negative emotions, and improve our well-being. More importantly, gratitude can have a positive effect on our friends and family, too”
Emmons goes further and suggests during hard times, gratitude not only helps but is essential; it is one of the few things that can measurably impact a person’s life during crisis. According to Emmons:
“it is precisely under crisis conditions when we have the most to gain by a grateful perspective on life. In the face of demoralization, gratitude has the power to energize. In the face of brokenness, gratitude has the power to heal. In the face of despair, gratitude has the power to bring hope. In other words, gratitude can help us cope with hard times.”
It seems then, gratitude has a power to turn our perspective 180 degrees; it sustains us through difficult times and allows us to do what we need to do in the world.
Gratitude does not mean,“SUCK IT UP!”
While I write about being grateful, I cannot think of anything more annoying, dismissive, and invalidating than going through a difficult time and having someone say, “remember how much you still have to be grateful for.” What is worse than going through a difficult time, is being denied the negative emotions that naturally develop as a consequence. It is important to take a moment here to emphasize that ignoring suffering and pain is not the goal. It does not help and can actually be harmful.
According to Emmons:
“To deny that life has its share of disappointments, frustrations, losses, hurts, setbacks, and sadness would be unrealistic and untenable. Life is suffering. No amount of positive thinking exercises will change this truth.”
There is an important difference here between feeling grateful and being grateful. Feelings are natural, they arise from a combination of life circumstance as well as our interpretation of life circumstance, and we don’t always have as much control over them. Feelings are not only natural, but they can be useful. Being aware of, and listening to, our feelings provides us important information and feedback on what we need or want in life, as well as what our values are. The danger here is in using gratitude to cover or suppress negative emotions; Forcing ourselves to feel grateful, which is not actually the same as being grateful.
Kara Loewntheil (2018) notes, people often try to impose gratitude onto negative feelings and in this way use gratitude against themselves; They shame themselves out of the negative emotion with the thought that they SHOULD feel grateful.
“Should” has moral value attached to it, and telling ourselves we should be grateful when we don’t feel grateful, is a form of self-shaming; we are shaming ourselves into gratitude. This is not real gratitude. This is just self-denial. A false ego. We allow others to shame us, or we shame ourselves into gratitude because our feelings are somehow unacceptable to us; maybe we think it means something negative about ourselves, or it is something we don’t want to feel. Either way, the triad of self-denial, shame, and inauthentic living has grave negative emotional and psychological consequences.
Here is the other thing, we cannot change what we don’t acknowledge is there. We need to be able to look at our thoughts or feelings, acknowledge our truth, and sit with it if we want to be able to change it.
And here is a radical idea from Loewntheil:
“What if you were grateful for being a human with all the mess that comes with it…If you were grateful for not being perfect, grateful for imperfections, humanness. If you can be grateful for all of that, then you can really be present with the self."
Unlike feeling, being grateful is a choice, it is an attitude, an approach toward life that “is relatively immune to the gains and losses that flow in and out of our lives. When disaster strikes, gratitude provides a perspective from which we can view life in its entirety and not be overwhelmed by temporary circumstances.” (Emmons)
Emmons further explains, “Processing a life experience through a grateful lens does not mean denying negativity. It is not a form of superficial happiology. Instead, it means realizing the power you have to transform an obstacle into an opportunity. It means reframing a loss into a potential gain, recasting negativity into positive channels for gratitude.” It is a kind of “grateful recasting.”
In fact, while gratitude arms us with resilience during challenging experiences, but difficult experiences can also deepen our gratitude. There is nothing like uncertainty to make us feel powerless, and the sense that anything can be taken away at any time, allows us to more deeply value what we may otherwise take for granted. So. crisis help us strengthen gratitude, but an attitude of gratitude can also strengthen our resilience to crisis.
Ultimately the goal in being grateful is to shift perspective, to see the broader picture, to be able to hold room for the negative emotions, but also broaden our view enough to also see the little gifts life holds. Good and bad can exist at the same time.
There are certain ways of thinking that can help move your mind further toward a gratitude mindset:
1. Understand life is not always going to give you everything that you deserve, it isn’t always fair, but we can move through it. Williams noted, “Who said it was always supposed to be rainbows and flowers. There is no promise that things should be great all the time. Suffering happens because you keep wanting that not to be true.”
2. Understand happiness comes not from external things but from within, and we should place more focus on our response to what happens, rather than try to change what cannot be changed.
3. Know we cannot have the good without the bad, the rose without the thorn, and see the bad as a normal part of life.
4. Look for hidden opportunities; life changes, even if frightening can lead to good things, even sometimes better things.
5. Base your self-worth on your journey, your resilience and determination, not focusing on regrets and failures.
6. Gratitude is a mindset that takes practice; make daily gratitude lists and include simple things you may take for granted. A warm shower, a sunrise, a breath. Another option is to have a gratitude conversation with someone, sharing with them what you are most grateful for.
7. As a bonus, openly express gratitude to people in your life. This has a way of uplifting both giver and receiver. Tell someone why you are grateful for them, or further find a way to show someone you are grateful for them.
8. See challenges, setbacks, failures as learning opportunities. This is perhaps most fundamental (at least it is one I try to use most): Focus more on the lessons that can be learned than on the disappointments. According to Emmons, taken to the extreme, “grateful coping entails looking for positive consequences of negative events. For example, grateful coping might involve seeing how a stressful event has shaped who we are today and has prompted us to reevaluate what is really important in life." Whether it is a large or small negative event, here are some useful questions to ask yourself:
What lessons did the experience teach me?
Can I find ways to be thankful for what happened to me now even though I was not at the time it happened?
What ability did the experience draw out of me that surprised me?
How am I now more the person I want to be because of it? Have my negative feelings about the experience limited or prevented my ability to feel gratitude in the time since it occurred?
Has the experience removed a personal obstacle that previously prevented me from feeling grateful?
9. One day we will be beyond the current crisis and situation. At that time, we could all use one of Dr. Emmons strategies: “one of my tips for practicing gratitude: remember the bad. It works this way: "Think of the worst times in your life, your sorrows, your losses, your sadness—and then remember that here you are, able to remember them, that you made it through the worst times of your life, you got through the trauma, you got through the trial, you endured the temptation, you survived the bad relationship, you’re making your way out of the dark. Remember the bad things, then look to see where you are now.” When we go back into our lives after COVID, let us look back at the things we missed, the things that became important to us now when we could not have them, and let us truly appreciate having those things in the future.
10. If nothing else works, consider this: If you lived until 90, this is a map of your life:
A typical human life depicted in weeks:
Here's a human life in months:
This is a human life in years:
It’s not that long. These charts by Tim Urban (2013) put each day into perspective don’t they? As we move through these diamonds, circles, and squares, there will be a last time to everything. Sometimes we will pass through our last time without even deciding or knowing it will be the last time. If you keep in mind that everything you do, everyone you know, every experience you have is finite, wouldn’t you be grateful even for some of the “bad” ones?
I cannot write an article without Brené Brown, so let me end it with her.
When asked “What does it mean to live a good life?” Brown answered, “Gratitude.”
“A good life happens when you stop and are grateful for the ordinary moments that so many of us steamroll over to find those extraordinary moments; like soccer practice, carpool lines, tuck ins, date night. And knowing that it’s good.”
Belmont, Judy. The top Ten Habits of Grateful People…Even in Tough Times. Lifehack.org
Emmons, Robert (2008) Thanks!: How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier. Houghton
Emmons, Robert (2013). How Gratitude Can Help You Through Hard Times. Greater Good
Kromer, Ed (2020). How to Cultivate Gratitude During Difficult Times - and why it can make us
Loewntheil, Kara. (2018) Gratitude. Podcast – Unf*ck your brain.
Urban, Tim (2013). Your Life in Weeks. WaitButWhy.com
Williams, DaRa (2020) How To Be Grateful When Everything Sucks. Ten Percent Happier Podcast