Gratitude as Medicine
By: Sharon Burris-Brown, LICSW, NBC-HWC
How many of us secretly roll our eyes when people advise us to see the brighter side? Positive psychology is all around us. We hear that optimistic people live longer. We learn in Positive Psychology that individuals “should” have 3 positive thoughts to 1 negative one in order to have optimal mental health and wellbeing. This theory however, has recently come into question.
But what if you are a skeptic or a “glass half-empty” kind of person? Or what if you are simply going through a tremendous amount of stress and your regular coping skills are not working? How do you build resilience through tough times?
Simply being told to think about the good side of those things that are challenging you is like someone telling you to calm down. And being told to calm down or to look at the positive side of what is driving you crazy can sound (and feel) like nails being dragged along a chalkboard! And if you do that to yourself, how has that worked for you?
If you are like most of us, you want to feel better yesterday! Cut out the stress. Push aside the anxiety. But, many of us don’t think about the power of acknowledgment. Before we can see the gift in the struggle, we need to first notice and accept that the struggle is real and how it is affecting us. It is like giving our tough emotions a nod and a gentle pat before moving forward to figure out the solution.
Gratitude is different than Positivity. You can notice and accept that life feels rotten right now, but still be able to feel grateful for all that you have. Being able to accept that both can be true increases emotional and cognitive flexibility and tolerance for the complexities of life.
Research shows that practicing gratitude can lead to
- Overall better physical and emotional wellbeing.
- More motivation to make healthier lifestyle choices.
- Less likelihood of suffering from burnout.
- It has even been found to help cardiac patients recover more quickly from cardiac events.
- Increased intimacy in relationships when practiced towards each other.
- Greater satisfaction at work and higher productivity.
Gratitude as a Practice
Gratitude does not come easy for many of us. It is natural to focus on the negative, because the tough stuff has the biggest emotional bang and captures our notice more easily. And as doers, we believe we need to fix whatever is wrong. But like any habit, repetition has the biggest rewards. It takes a lot of repetition to rewire a brain.
Patricia Lucas, PhD, R-DMT, LPCC, a psychotherapist at Lyn Lake Psychotherapy and Wellness explains that gratitude is a “cornerstone” of her practice. She says that she often gives her clients small notebooks and an assignment to write 3 things they are grateful for, daily.
There are many strategies for practicing gratitude. Journaling is prevalent because it creates a structure for capturing those thoughts and a place to put them.
- The 5 Minute Journal. For those who feel overwhelmed with the time it may take to put a gratitude habit into practice, this is a short and sweet exercise. Write three things you are grateful for, three things that will help you have a great day and a daily affirmation.
- Three Good Things. Write down 3 things that went well at the end of each day for a certain period of time.
- Focus on certain people that you are grateful to have in your life.
- Mental Subtraction of Positive Events. Similar to the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life”, write down those things/people in your life that if you had not gotten the job you wanted, or met that close friend or loving partner, how would your life had gone in their absence?
- When we have too much of a good thing, it may be helpful to do the Give It Up exercise. Catholics do this during Lent. They give up a pleasurable activity like cutting out sugar or alcohol during that time. Notice how it feels to come back to something after giving it up for a certain period of time. Research has shown that those who give something up even for a week can feel a greater appreciation for it later.
- Try a Mindfulness exercise such as taking a walk where you focus on your feet touching the ground, the feel of the air around you, the smells, what you see. You can do this for 10-20 minutes and reap the benefits: it is relaxing and it offers the opportunity to focus on the appreciation of your senses and what is around you.
- Write a Gratitude Letter. This is to thank those who have been kind to you. It takes 10-15 minutes to write the letter and a period of time to make the call or to visit that individual in person. Martin Seligman, a researcher who specializes in happiness, found that this practice had one of the greatest lasting impacts on an individual’s wellbeing.
The benefits of a gratitude practice only continue if you make this process a lasting part of your life. It is easy to slide back into the old habit of focusing on what is wrong.
Creating a practice of gratitude “awakens a new perspective towards the self” explains Lucas. She further notes that those that surround the individual can come to new insights regarding them. Thus, gratitude can build and strengthen relationships.
In addition, it allows us to create a peaceful and joyful center even when the storms move through.