Gratitude is easy when life is good.
When life is hard, it’s far more challenging to look around and see the beautiful things. But it turns out that gratitude as a practice is most necessary in these hard times. Gratitude can improve our quality of life so significantly when we’re struggling that we should all be prescribed a daily practice during this pandemic.
If you’re struggling right now (and honestly, who isn’t?) it might feel odd to have a prescription for gratitude given to you. Be grateful, now, when everything is so hard, when I’m facing so many challenges, and many of the best things in my life are not available to me?! Yes, now, more than ever, it is essential.
Gratitude isn’t toxic positivity. It doesn’t ask us to deny what is real and challenging our lives: it means consciously choosing to look around and notice the positive things that are also occurring in your world. When you are not doing anything in particular, your brain shifts into the ‘default network’ mode, whose primary function is to constantly scan your environment for possible threats. This happens at a background level, of which we have no conscious awareness. We’re always on the alert for negative threats that might be appearing out of nowhere. That means we have to train our brains to consciously look for positive events and blessings, too, to overcome this instinct towards negativity.
Science has shown that practicing gratitude in hard times is not only good for you, it might even be necessary to overcome your challenges.
Gratitude helps you to take the raw ingredients of a traumatic event or adverse circumstances (like this pandemic) and transform it into personal growth. It also is a key input into other core positive coping mechanisms, like leaning on your community for support and being able to craft new and more helpful narratives about your experiences.
Here are a few examples of gratitude’s power during hard times from the research:
Veterans who develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have lower gratitude levels than those who do not
Breast cancer patients who wrote a gratitude diary every day for two weeks were able to function more effectively, felt more supported, and were better able to use effective coping strategies than those who did not
Police officers post-Hurricane Katrina who were more grateful experienced lower levels of depression
Students who went through a school shooting who were more grateful were more likely to experience post-traumatic growth, which is the experience of positive transformation after adverse events
Americans after 9/11 who were more grateful experienced less overall psychological distress
People who recover from traumatic experiences are able to do so in large part by finding some positive benefit from the experience
Even if you are just facing more garden-variety stress (which is nothing to sneeze at), gratitude helps:
Gratitude has been shown to lead to a decreased level of stress over time – and given the very clear link between stress and long-term chronic illnesses, this could be a key way that it helps us to stay health
Increasing gratitude leads to improved sleep by reducing pre-bedtime negative thoughts
Experiencing gratitude and other positive emotions helps you to be more resilient when experiencing negative emotions
There’s no way to turn off your threat-awareness system. But you can learn to overcome its disproportionate impact on your psychological well-being by practicing gratitude. Over time, this will turn gratitude from a behavior into a trait, something that you do naturally. Again, this doesn’t mean ignoring or suppressing the very real suffering that you’re experiencing. Gratitude is a tool that you can use to help you through that suffering and out the other side. By using it, you can seek out the positive benefits of your day-to-day life, as well as look for ways of reframing the current challenges you’re facing, which increases your resilience and helps you to cope more effectively.
In fact, research has found that experiencing positive emotions like gratitude goes beyond feeling good in the moment. They also lead to increased resilience and well-being over time. When you experience a positive emotion, your thoughts and your actions are temporarily ‘broadened’ – instead of choosing your default thoughts and behaviors, you become more open, flexible, and creative, which helps you to see new possibilities. When this happens, we build psychological resources like resilience and even undo the negative impact of negative emotions. Every positive emotion you feel eventually leads to you being more resilient, experiencing more well-being, and reducing the impact of stress and negative emotions. Right now, many of our current sources of positive emotion (travel, adventure, in person connection, exploration, hobbies) have disappeared. But gratitude is always within our reach, even when we are stuck at home.
Here are three ways you can practice gratitude in five minutes or less:
Think of someone in your life who had a major impact upon you but who you never properly thanked. Send them an email or give them a call and let them know what their help meant to you.
Every night, text one friend a list of three things you’re grateful for. Hold each other accountable. I do this every night with my friend Mike and it has made a tremendous difference in my well-being.
As you sit down to dinner, share one thing you’re grateful for with your family. Invite them to do the same.
Gratitude is one of the greatest win-wins. It not only improves your well-being, but it can improve the well-being of others. In a very real way, practicing gratitude leads to a more peaceful world.
I love what Brother David Steindl-Rast says about this:
This week, take a look around and observe the kindness and generosity of others. When you see it, take a minute to let it sink in, and fill you up with gratitude. Those few minutes a day can build the resilience that helps you to get through this pandemic.
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