There has been much talk recently about the association between gratitude and happiness. Studies have revealed that people who are actively grateful, reap many benefits including improved physical and mental health, a greater capacity for empathy, less aggression, a reduction in stress level (related to fewer comparisons to others) and improved self esteem.
From what I have observed in my private psychotherapy practice, composing “The Gratitude List” can initially cause distress for those to whom feeling grateful does not come easily. Many people think they are supposed to compose this list IN RESPONSE TO sadness or disappointment in their lives. In doing so, they run the risk of invalidating their painful and uncomfortable feelings. The gratitude list should not be written to replace troubling experiences and related emotions. Feeling pressured to conjure up this list in the face of difficult events and circumstances robs people of the opportunity to actually face their difficulties and make appropriate and healthy changes accordingly. Rather, if they can come up with ways to begin to cultivate an ongoing openness to feeling gratitude, for example, by setting a daily intention to be thankful or appreciative in general (for people, events, situations or circumstances), then they can begin to experience the associated positive feelings without feeling pressured to shut down their other emotions.
Another noticeable phenomenon when encouraging people to shift their focus onto gratitude is the reluctance to let go of their anger and resentments. These emotional states can bring on a temporary sense of empowerment in the face of underlying fear and hurt. It can also be hard for some to stop focusing on their disappointments, because keeping their misfortunes in the forefront of their minds acts as a sort of armor against further feelings of vulnerability. Despite the discomfort that comes with remaining in a negative feeling state, people feel less at risk for future disappointment or hurt if they are convinced they’re already there. The problem with this type of stance is that it will keep them in victim mode and in an overall depressed mood.
What I encourage in my practice, particularly with those who are prone to repetitive negative thoughts, is to make attempts to create mind space ALONG SIDE the negative thoughts (NOT to try to replace them). I make the suggestion of staying open to opportunities for focusing on what they appreciate on any given day. They are not then being asked to “let go” of their negative experiences, but rather to “let them be”, while paying attention to what they DO have, what they DO appreciate and what DOES feel good in their day and/or life. Not only does this help people in gaining a more realistic and balanced perspective, it can create resiliency and containment in the face of future challenges.
A further trend I have come across in my work is the guilt reaction people experience when they feel they should ALWAYS be grateful. I’ll hear various examples of, “I shouldn’t complain, because….” or “But, I’m so lucky compared to…”. This viewpoint is actually keeping them in comparison mode to others as they are just getting caught up in it from a different angle. This mode of thinking can also contribute to discrediting their genuine life concerns.
The task is about choosing to focus on what you CAN appreciate; zooming in on it like the lens of a camera. Yes, there is a bigger picture, but you are opting to pay attention to these particular aspects. Doing so does not dismiss the things that are upsetting or unwelcome in your life. It’s a type of focusing for your mind that helps you to more fully experience what you enjoy, what you have and what feeds a sense of pride, strength and satisfaction. Furthermore, it can contribute to a building of inner strength that can serve you in addressing any areas of your life that are causing you concern.
Given the multitude of potential gains, why not try it? You can treat it like an experiment, so you can avoid the pressure and overwhelm that can often come with the idea of change and commitment. The potential benefits of being grateful, such as deeper relationships, optimism, increased resilience, decreased competitiveness and materialism and an overall healthier and happier you are all well worth it.