“In ordinary life, we hardly realize that we receive a great deal more than we give, and that it is only with gratitude that life becomes rich.” — Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Gratitude isn’t a concept that we tend to give much thought on a regular basis. Most of the time, we’re too preoccupied with work, family matters and the little concerns of daily life to stop and feel grateful. However, making the time to think about gratitude can be very beneficial for our mental health and wellness.
The benefits of gratitude have been well established through psychological research. For starters, a large body of evidence suggests that gratitude is associated with an overall sense of well-being in life. Gratitude is also a protective factor against many types of psychopathology, as gratitude interventions have been proven useful in reducing symptoms of depression and distress. Practicing gratitude is also beneficial for interpersonal relationships, as studies have shown that expressing gratitude toward another person improves our view of that relationship.
This research has established that there is indeed a power to being thankful, but as with all wellness behaviors, knowing what to do is only part of the solution. The key is in putting that knowledge into practice, especially when the behavior, like gratitude, goes against our natural mode of thinking and acting.
To better understand the importance of gratitude, we spoke with Cummins therapists Jessica Hynson, Jeremy Haire, and Mindy Frazee. Together, they explained why gratitude can be so difficult for us to practice sometimes—and how we can gradually “rewire” our brains to be more grateful in life.
Why Gratitude Doesn’t Come Naturally
For better or worse, human beings are very good at detecting problems. This probably has to do with the way our brains are “wired,” which may have helped our ancient ancestors avoid danger and survive. Today, it means that we’re simply more inclined to see the bad in life than the good. “All too often, our minds are focused on solving the issues of the day (i.e. what’s for dinner, do I have to go to the store again, who is going to pick up Billy from practice) and not so often do we set aside time to focus on what’s going well in our lives,” Mindy explains.
The problem with this mode of thinking is that it takes for granted the good things in our lives. These could be anything from relationships with friends and family to a roof over our heads, a filling meal, a pleasant day outside, or even our favorite song playing on the radio. Even when we are struggling in life, we usually have something positive to be thankful for, and focusing on these things can make a significant difference in our outlook. According to Jessica, “When we stop focusing on the negative and instead focus on the positive, it can really change our attitude, our mentality, our mood—it can just change everything.”
Of course, looking for silver linings can be difficult when we feel surrounded by problems. The good news is that gratitude becomes easier and more natural with practice, and it’s a behavior that we can choose even when other parts of our lives seem out of control. Jeremy says,
“With depression especially, consumers may feel like their mood is out of their control, like it’s something that is controlling them and so much of their day. Gratitude is helpful in the sense that it’s something people can do on purpose. It can help them feel like, ‘Oh, this is something I can choose. It’s something I can do regardless of what I’m feeling in a moment. It’s something that, once I get into the practice of it, I see the benefit of.’ And once they practice it, it gets easier and easier, and the things that they notice are things they would’ve never paid attention to at the beginning.”
Simple Exercises for Practicing Gratitude
Fortunately, practicing gratitude is relatively easy to do in our day-to-day lives. One of the simplest and most popular ways is to keep a gratitude journal. Journaling is a great way to increase mindfulness and manage mental health problems, and regularly writing down things that you’re grateful for is a sure way to build a mindset of gratitude. “It’s a way to focus and reflect on the events or moments that you appreciate and want to remember,” Jeremy says.
If you choose to try your hand at gratitude journaling, there are a few different ways you can approach it. “There are different kinds of gratitude journals you can get,” Jessica says. “You can do free-form, where you might write down three things that you’re grateful for today. You can also get journals with prompts, because some people really can’t think of anything positive right now. They might think, ‘Nothing is positive today,’ but the prompt can get them thinking outside the box.”
If journaling isn’t for you, you could try meditation instead. “One of the gratitude exercises I recommend is a guided meditation focused on compassion and kindness,” Mindy explains. “You can find some great free apps for this. I usually recommend Stop, Breathe & Think. Affirmations are another way one can cultivate a mindset of gratitude towards self and others. An example of an affirmation might be, ‘I am grateful for my body and all of the wonderful things it does for me.’ “
Finally, you can experiment with different ways of reminding yourself to be grateful. You could leave post-it notes with positive affirmations around your home or in your car, or you could set daily reminders on your phone to do your gratitude exercise. Another strategy is to have a gratitude partner whom you express your gratefulness toward, which is particularly useful for romantic couples. Finally, you can create a gratitude jar filled with pre-selected exercises that you pick at random and complete each day.
However you choose to practice gratitude in your daily life, remember that gratitude is just that—a choice! If we choose to be grateful for the good things around us, it won’t solve all of our problems, but it can help us lead happier, more fulfilled lives.
For more wellness strategies and coping skills you can use to improve your mental health, check out these other posts from our blog!