The Truth About Gratitude
“I am happy because I’m grateful. I choose to be grateful. That gratitude allows me to be happy.”
- Will Arnett
This week we want to come back to one of the basic principles of wellbeing – gratitude.
This well-researched topic is often continually proffered as good practice. It has been shown to improve our overall wellbeing and doesn’t seem to have a downside.
It is, however, sometimes quite hard to achieve, particularly when things have gone wrong or when horrible things have happened. Many of our patients say “I know I should be grateful, there are many people worse off than me”. Why though, would another’s suffering make us feel any better about our own situation?
How then can we be grateful after a disappointment or a trauma? It feels impossible and very Pollyanna!
Why does it feel so difficult to achieve? We believe this is because when we experience a negative situation, fear is present; fear of the situation continuing or happening again, fear of failure, or fear of what others will think and say. Fear works directly against gratitude.
Fearful thoughts create the fight-flight cascade within us, and this creates physical changes that feel uncomfortable. These feelings encourage more negative thoughts and sometimes negative behaviours, and the spiral goes down and down towards despair.
Gratitude does the opposite; thinking about the things and people we are grateful for - no matter how small - generates positive body chemistry and feelings of joy and pleasure. This is more likely to encourage positive behaviours and purposeful actions that prolong the experience. When gratitude frames our focus and directs our priorities it is then much easier to challenge negative thoughts and generate positive body chemistry
A direct consequence of practising gratitude is an increase in feelings of self-worth. We have written about this topic before.
If we are grateful for the things around us, we start to recognise and believe that we are worthy of those things, and this sets off another positive spiral. When we believe we are worthy, our thoughts, feelings and actions align with that belief, and this creates opportunities in our environment and manifests the outcome that we desire. In addition, appreciating the value of things means we are less likely to take them for granted. When we take things for granted we can fall into the trap of creating unrealistic expectations for ourselves and others, risking disappointment.
Finally, gratitude helps us to achieve mindfulness, that state where we are free from worries about the past or present and are accepting of whatever is happening. This helps us to consider how we might be grateful even when tragedy has struck. It is important to note that we are not advocating covering up negative events and pretending everything is ok by saying we are grateful. We are suggesting that when we accept what is happening and acknowledge our feelings about it, we can then choose to focus on what we are grateful for right now, in the moment.
If we lose a loved one, we feel the pain and sorrow of that loss, but we can focus on the shared love and be truly grateful that we had the privilege to know that person.
If we do not get the job or a project is not flourishing, we can acknowledge the disappointment and then be grateful for the feedback and the opportunity to grow and improve.
In short, when challenged how would you rather feel - frustrated and cheated or grateful and motivated to improve?
In the research literature regarding gratitude, it is defined as both a state and a trait. We can experience gratitude as an event, and we can foster a grateful mindset.
State – a response to external circumstances.
Trait – a personality trait developed as a combination of our genetic make-up, our conditioning, learned responses and our life experiences.
The state of gratitude is a choice.
The trait is more ingrained within us but can be modified.
Certain other factors that can inhibit gratitude are narcissism, cynicism, materialism/envy, and indebtedness.
It seems then, that we can choose to feel grateful in any situation and we can work on our mindset, increasing our proclivity for gratitude; both will benefit us and improve our experience.
Make a gratitude list – write down all the things that you are grateful for in your life and stick it up around the house. Start and end your day by looking at it in the bathroom mirror.
Start a gratitude journal – note the things that happen in the day that you are grateful for. Review your journal regularly. Remember to note the opportunities for learning which arise. This is the best way to generate gratitude for adverse events.
Practise Direct Gratitude – take the time to tell people when you are grateful for something they have done. This is vital when you work with others and especially if you are a leader. Say “Thank You”. It is even helpful to say thank you even when you receive negative feedback or a challenge. “Thank you for the information” or “Thank you for sharing your views”. You are thankful for the opportunity to grow and develop.
Gratitude can help us manage our thoughts, feelings, and actions in all situations, even when we are in pain, feeling miserable, or experiencing loss and disappointment. It does not alter the event, but it helps us shape our experience of that event in the most positive way.
For more insights and a host of tools and techniques for exploring the Self and improving your human experience see our book: