Gratitude in Hard Times

Reviewed by Dr Sheri Jacobson

Can't handle the mess the world has become? Constantly moaning? Heard of gratitude, but figured it might be some self-help nonsense you don't have time for?

It's time to rethink gratitude and its offering for troubled times.

What is gratitude, really?

Twenty years ago researchers often saw it as being appreciative for help and positive attention from others. But studies started to show that people experienced feelings of gratitude even doing things alone. So the definition evolved.

The current definition of gratitude tends to be along the lines of taking time to appreciate and notice what is going right in our lives, or with the world around us.

A large scale review of current research on gratitude by psychologists Wood, Froh, and Gerghty calls gratitude a ‘life orientation’, like a way we choose to direct our internal compass.

Researchers Watkins et al. at Eastern Washington University, in a set of four research studies on gratitude and happiness, also suggest that gratitude involves:

  • choosing to not feel deprived in life
  • recognising abundance
  • acknowledging the contributions of others to our wellbeing
  • appreciating simple pleasures
  • rating expressing thanks as important.

But I’m just not the grateful sort

The study at Eastern Washington University did find that some people are more prone to have the gratitude 'affective trait', although this could be through environment over genetics (being raised in a religious household, for example, where you are taught to give thanks to an exterior force).

But again, gratitude is a habit and skill you can cultivate. It’s a choice we can all make or not make. A habitual focussing and something you can learn and then put into action daily.

What is a gratitude practice?

Gratitude is often referred to as a ‘practice’.

The idea is that we set aside five or 10 minutes each day to consciously be grateful. It can be easier to remember if you attach your practice to a 'non negotiable', such as writing down what you are grateful for as you have you breakfast, or working through your gratitude list as you brush your teeth.

Positive thinking isn’t my thing

Gratitude doesn’t require a lot of effort. You don’t have to believe things will get better on days you simply can’t.

Unlike optimism, hope, and trust, which require you to look forward, gratitude is about the present moment and only requires that you notice and appreciate what is okay in your life right here and now.

You can have negative thoughts or feel low and still be grateful. A simple example here is having a terrible day at work and feeling utterly miserable, then coming home and being incredibly grateful for a hug from your partner and a hot cup of tea.

Waiting for life to be good to be grateful defeats the point

Gratefulness is a habit of attention. But to make something a habit, the key is consistency. The more consistent we are, the more gratitude helps us when we actually need it.

The proven benefits of gratitude

The studies carried out at the Eastern Washington University showed that gratitude directly improves mood and wellbeing.

And they found a surprisingly strong negative correlation between gratitude and depression in particular. Which means the more the gratitude, the less the depression.

And it's not just depression that can benefit when it comes to mental health and gratitude. A fascinating study that looked at the affects of religiosity on psychiatric disorders in over 2000 twins ended up showing that thankfulness also led to a significantly lower risk for:

  • bulimia
  • generalised anxiety disorder
  • phobias
  • nicotine, alcohol and drug dependence.

Then there is the study by American gratitude researchers Dr. Robert A. Emmons and Dr. Michael E. McCullough. It showed that daily journalling about what we are grateful for can even lead to higher energy levels, a greater interest in exercise, and a reduction in physical ailments and trips to the doctor.

Finally, gratitude is simple

In their comprehensive review on gratitude research, psychologists Wood, Froh, and Gerghty came to one overall conclusion:

Gratitude is a key under appreciated trait in clinical psychology, of relevance due to a strong, unique, and causal relationship with well-being, and due to the potential to use simple and easy techniques.

Gratitude is free, it takes minutes to learn, and a mere few minutes a day can produce results. Even if you are in the middle of a pandemic or lockdown and feel like you have no energy or focus, it's an easy ask. It seems almost silly not to try.

So down lately you need help to be grateful? Book a session now with a therapist you like and find the support to get started.

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