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The power of gratitude

The power of gratitude

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I miscarried in April when the pandemic was still young and forcing us all to adapt to change at an alarming, uncomfortable pace. Fear of contracting the virus coupled with the novelty of sheltering in place, the doom-and-gloom news cycle and the bedlam of conflicting health recommendations kept me (and some of you, I imagine) in a state of heightened-ness.

Back then, it was easy to avoid dealing with the emotional fallout of our new reality, to say nothing of personal traumas, because every day was a cavalcade of emotion, information and stress. When something as simple as going to the grocery store feels like a survival contest, there’s little room for the hard work of processing feelings.

Still, I felt the trauma of my lost pregnancy, even if I didn’t exactly deal with it. I was overcome with grief, anger, resentment, embarrassment and self-loathing. My pain was big and unbearable. And then the acuity passed. Life moved on, and I thought everything was fine.

As the pandemic dragged on, it became clear that the emotional toll of it all wouldn’t be so quickly overcome. In the past, I would have turned to future thinking—planning trips, setting goals, envisioning the next chapter of my life and then taking steps toward it—to cope with present discomforts. But the pandemic and my miscarriage had robbed me of my sense of control and self-determination. I got caught up in circuitous negative thinking and excessive worry. I interpreted every setback as a personal affront. I was adrift, overwhelmed, on edge and ashamed for feeling so bad when others were facing greater hardships than me.

The Journal of the American Medical Association reports that three times as many adults reported psychological distress in April 2020 compared to 2018. The pandemic has disrupted our lives and introduced incredible stressors—compounding all of the personal challenges individuals regularly face—putting the mental health of millions of Americans at risk for a long time to come.

Enter gratitude

In the midst of working through my grief, a friend on Instagram began posting simple lists of the things she was thankful for each day, from her young daughter’s cooing to the taste of a freshly plucked peach and all varieties of benediction in between. The posts were manna to my battered psyche. I took solace in her positivity and comfort in her vulnerability, which suggested I wasn’t alone in my need for grounding.

She also inspired me to commit to my own gratitude practice. That meant taking time each evening to reflect on my day and writing down everything good that I experienced—particular words I exchanged with my partner, the ideas I generated on a long evening walk, the calm of a quiet, device-free morning.

In time, I found myself being more mindful of small wins as they happened, and my definition of beauty and joy expanded to include new aspects of being. I even began anticipating my “gratitudes” before they happened, which had me going through life with a more optimistic mindset. Of course, some days were harder than others, and it did not solve all my problems, but on aggregate, practicing gratitude has been constructive and rewarding for me.

The psychology of being thankful

Psychology experts wouldn’t be surprised to hear my testimony. Research has shown that gratitude is associated with more life satisfaction, more resilience after trauma and even certain markers of physical health, like lower levels of inflammation. Thankfully, the benefits aren’t limited to people who are inherently grateful. Adopting interventions that cultivate gratitude, like the list-making ritual described, has been shown to increase happiness, improve sleep and foster a more positive mood, among other effects.

Experts speculate that focusing attention on the things you are grateful for counteracts or even crowds out negative emotions and thought patterns. I spoke with Erin M. Moss, MA, LMHC of Erin M. Moss Mental Health Counseling Private Practice in Buffalo, who explained gratitude’s potential to help individuals reframe the way they experience the world.

“If you choose to focus on the things that are going wrong with your day, your week, within your life story—which is not to say we should not acknowledge that things are hard—but if that is your whole story, that impacts your perspective,” she said. “When you start to intentionally look for the things that are good, it transforms your outlook on your life.”

Tikana Truitt, PhD, LMHC, BCC, an Amherst-based mental health counselor, also points to gratitude’s potential to improve social connection, enhance relationships and increase the likelihood that someone will do something to help others.

“Being able to recognize and acknowledge that there are individuals in your life who have made positive contributions or who have inspired you in some way can enhance a sense of social support by helping you see the people that you are connected to,” she said. “Research also shows that if a person expresses gratitude to an individual who provided them with an act of kindness, that individual may be compelled to engage in more prosocial behavior.”

Gratitude’s spiritual side

An endorsement of gratitude isn’t exclusive to the field of psychology. Every major religion preaches its virtues and makes an effort to cultivate it among adherents. Gratitude is also foundational to new-age spiritual traditions and alternative wellness modalities that set store by awareness and being present in the moment as a pathway to not only better physical and mental health but also, in some cases, an enlightened state of being. In these traditions, gratitude is extolled as a form of mindfulness akin to (and often practiced in conjunction with) meditation.

Liz Czapski, a yoga teacher at Studio Sophia in Buffalo, considers gratitude an essential component of her yogic way of life. Frequently, she offers her students gratitude-themed prompts for reflection and intention-setting, adding additional layers of meaning and mindfulness to their gracefully linked asanas.

For her, gratitude and awareness are close companions, and their relationship is symbiotic and circular. Practicing gratitude hones awareness. In turn, awareness begets the clarity one needs to recognize the things they have to be grateful for. Cultivating both can have powerful effects.

“Gratitude has helped me to strengthen my relationships and be a better listener and a better human being in terms of how I choose to just take on the day, whether that’s with a positive mindset or letting one little thing get to me,” she said.

Putting gratitude into practice

Both Moss and Truitt deploy gratitude interventions with clients and believe gratitude can be beneficial for many people when practiced consistently.

“Gratitude is definitely something that has to be cultivated, and it takes discipline,” Truitt said. “It’s actively taking that time to practice bringing awareness to the good things in our lives and then consciously choosing to acknowledge them through a gratitude ritual.”

Examples of gratitude rituals you can start today include:

  • Keeping a gratitude journal: Once daily, write down three to five positive things that you experienced that day. Include details of what occurred and how you felt.
  • Writing letters of appreciation: Think of someone who did something that you are grateful for and write them a letter thanking them for what they did or the impact they had. You can deliver the letter or keep it to yourself and still see benefits, but the former may yield more prosocial returns. Repeat weekly.
  • Go for mindful walks: Enjoy regular 20-minute walks outside without company or electronics. Pay attention to everything that gives you pleasure, using as many senses as possible.

When it comes to designing your own gratitude ritual, Moss says there’s no rulebook and that what works for one person won’t necessarily work for another.

“Some of my clients say that journaling, pen to paper, is not their thing,” she said. “I say, ‘Okay, I want you to be comfortable with this. Can you go on your phone and record yourself instead? The important thing is getting it out.’”

Once you find a ritual you like, it may still take time to figure out how to build it into your routine. Stick with it, the experts advise, and try not to give up if you don’t experience results immediately.

Important caveats

If you do begin a gratitude practice, remember that gratitude is not a panacea, and the effects vary by individual.

“Gratitude is not going to be effective for every situation a person faces,” Truitt said. “People should develop various coping skills and be able to adapt to the situation and use them accordingly.”

Individuals practicing gratitude should also take care not to let their newfound appreciation for what’s good in their life blind them to what isn’t serving them.

“It’s important for individuals to recognize that it’s okay to feel negative emotions, and practicing gratitude doesn’t mean ignoring them, because they can alert us to things that we may need to change in our lives,” said Truitt.

Above all, know that as helpful as practicing gratitude can be, it’s far from a cure-all. If you are feeling hopeless or excessively worried or unsatisfied with yourself or other aspects of your life; if you are having trouble functioning; or if you just want someone objective to talk to, seek the counsel of a therapist or other professional. We’ll all be thankful that you did.

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