This is the time of year when words like grateful and thankful start coming up a lot more. You see them on shirts and mugs and tv ads. We post about being #grateful, tweet about what we are thankful for, and take pictures of our turkeys, but are we incorporating these sentiments into our daily lives? Is gratitude part of our value system, both personally and in a societal sense? I wonder how often gratitude becomes more of a display than a lived experience. This is already going to be a different kind of Thanksgiving, so maybe this year it would be worth exploring the deeper meaning of these terms and their ability to improve our conscious awareness. What follows is my therapisty take on how to look at gratitude through the lens of improved mental health.
First let me talk about what gratitude is and isn’t. Gratitude is an acknowledgment of what we appreciate or are thankful for in our lives. Sometimes when this topic comes up, I get initial push back from clients because they fear that expressing gratitude will negate or invalidate their suffering. I will usually ask why it has to be either/or when actually both states can be simultaneously true. This is an example of our tendency to fall into binary thinking, rather than examine the complexity of a situation. I can be grateful for what I have in my life, while also sitting with an immense amount of pain.
I heard an example of this recently at a virtual suicide awareness luncheon I attended. The speaker shared about a time when she experienced the death of a loved one and a trusted friend suggested that she start an ongoing gratitude list. Her initial response was as described above and she said she didn’t have a thing to be grateful for. When her friend pushed, she started with her toothbrush and the list grew from there. She went on to reflect that this list was the life jacket that kept her from drowning in the grief she was experiencing. Maintaining this balanced perspective can help combat the brain’s tendency to put all of its energy into focusing on painful thoughts, memories, etc.
Another concern a client voiced to me once was that expressing gratitude could be seen as a form of narcissism, i.e., that you’re bragging to others about how great your life is. As we explored this, we came to the conclusion that there’s a fundamental difference between performative gratitude and an authentic acknowledgement of appreciation within yourself and toward those around you. The goal here is to avoid taking things for granted and this doesn’t have to be showy or egocentric. The emphasis can actually be on how great life itself is, not just your own experience of it.
As a marriage and family therapist, I frequently see connection breakdowns in relationships. Gratitude has long since retreated from clients’ vocabulary or has become weaponized. Marriage researcher, Dr. John Gottman, coined the term “negative sentiment override” to describe a relational pattern that happens when we can no longer see our loved ones for who they are, but rather all the ways in which they are falling short of our expectations. Everything they do pisses us off. They’re driving wrong, they’re cooking wrong, they’re breathing wrong, their entire existence is wrong. It is hard to unflip this switch, and sometimes we fear that if we do the other person will have somehow “won”. The problem with this distorted view is that there is zero room for positive change to occur. They could move heaven and earth for the relationship and it would still fall short. Now I’m not suggesting that we grab some rose-colored glasses and excuse all the errors of their ways, but taking a step back and acknowledging parts of the relationship that you would miss if they were gone would be one way to approach stabilizing things. Again, duality can exist – I can love someone and be angry with them at the same time.
A popular phrase used in the self-help world is that “gratitude is the antidote to depression”… and it’s not wrong. I would probably just correct and say that it is one antidote to depression, but not the end all be all. Depression is often times fueled by a hyper fixation on the past, on what was. I heard a call on a podcast recently where the listener described experiencing crippling depression. She was already on meds, in therapy, etc. but it wasn’t until she started a gratitude journal that she was able to pull herself out of it. Why would that be? Depression is greedy. It wants all of our undivided attention. It doesn’t want you to think about anything other than it. A shift towards identifying things in your present life that don’t totally suck can help get you out of your head and snap you back into the present. This intentional perspective change can be effective because it takes the power away from the problem. If depression doesn’t have your full and complete attention anymore, over time its grip on you can begin to weaken.
Incorporating gratitude in our lives requires awareness and intentionality. If practiced regularly, it can actually be a form of mindfulness and can help ground you in the present moment. If we start to push back on our automatic responses and autopilot thinking patterns, we will start to see that we have a choice in where our attention goes. Things that we usually brush past or ignore will start to have meaning again. I’ll give you an example of what I mean:
This morning I noticed myself feeling overwhelmed by all the things on my to do list. I knew I needed to slow myself down if I were to have any shot at getting it all done, so I decided to do a 5-minute meditation. Backstory: this is the time of year when my nemesis, mountain cedar, likes to make my eyes so itchy that putting my contacts in is pretty much impossible, and today is the first day of the season that I have been forced to wear my glasses. So I take them off, close my eyes, and do the mediation. When it was over, I opened my eyes and much to my surprise everything was really blurry. Like I legitimately had forgotten that I wouldn’t have glasses on when I came back into the room. I laughed at myself and put on my glasses, but then spent the next few minutes really thinking about how grateful I am to have corrective eyewear. If you think about it, this has allowed us to beat Darwinism in a way. These obligatory frames that I cursed all through middle school have allowed me to live a more vibrant life and for that I am thankful.
I have a lot of existential conversations with clients. These conversations range from questioning one’s purpose, to the meaning of life, to anxiety about death. A common theme that usually emerges from these discussions is a general fear of regret. They worry that they didn’t value the time they had, cherish relationships enough, or believe in themselves enough to go after what they wanted. In some cases, this causes significant distress and leads to feelings of paralysis. Now I’m not going to pretend I have all the answers here. This is a fundamental part of the human condition from which I am not exempt. I will say though, that if we only get to live once, I’d like to be where my feet are for most of it. Depression takes us backwards and anxiety pulls us into the worst-case scenario future. Mindfulness and gratitude allow us to be in our bodies in real time. If we live with intention in the present, we are grounded by the notion that all we are truly capable of is making the next right decision in that moment. Gratitude can keep us from missing all that life has to offer.
Ok so I’ve presented you with some concepts, now what do you actually do with them? I’ve created a self-inventory exercise that I’ll share, and then I’ll give you a few activity suggestions. Take what fits and leave the rest.
I have come up with a list of different areas of our lived experience that one could express gratitude toward. This is certainly not exhaustive, so feel free to add any other category you’d like. What I want you to do is grab a pen and paper and for each variable write about anything you are grateful for that relates. This could be in paragraph form, bullet points, or whatever format you like. My only requirement is that you don’t overthink it. I am giving you semi-vague instructions because I want you to take this and run with it in the way that best suits you. Here goes:
- Creative expression
- Basic needs
How was that?
Did anything surprise you?
What feelings came up?
What does this tell you about your lived experience?
How could you incorporate this type of awareness into more of your life?
Here are a few ideas…
- Write gratitude letters to important people in your life (including one to yourself).
- Create a gratitude mandala – there are lots of examples of these on Google, but the premise is to put your name in the middle and create spirals of words representing things you are grateful for all around it.
- Start a #365grateful photo project. I know, I know, I started this off by hating on hashtags a bit, but this is a pretty cool project. Basically, you take a picture of something you are grateful for every day for an entire year and create an album out of it.
- Make a gratitude journal. Write down 3 things each day, make an ongoing list, or just go stream of consciousness.
- Conduct a meditation practice focused on gratitude. There are lots of guided ones on the various mainstream apps.
- Have conversations with loved ones about gratitude. Learn from others about their relationship with the concept.
So there’s my festive holiday spiel! If you’re reading this to the end, then I am truly grateful for your time and attention. My intent is not to give concrete directives for how to live life, but rather to offer a framework through which you get to explore that for yourself.
Now go eat some turkey/tofurkey, and have a safe and happy Thanksgiving!
PS – If you’re curious, the cover photo is of my Thanksgiving cactus from last year, which decided to bloom again just in time 😀