Gratitude is about the best topic ever. People love talking about gratitude. Sure, it can be irritating if you’re having a bum day and some Pollyanna comes along saying “I’m so thankful for my awesome boyfriend!” Barf. I know it. That’s the best way to instill feelings of silent rage. That’s not what I’m talking about. I first heard about using gratitude as a tool to combat depression when I was 22. I was living with a young woman who was in AA and loved to share their catchy phrases and her own occasional blurbs of unsolicited advice. If you aren’t familiar with AA sayings, you’re missing out. I’ll use them frequently because they are fabulous and apply to all life situations. In this case, I think I was in a cranky space and whining about a break up, or how broke I was. She looked at me and said “you need to make a gratitude list.” What?! I was looking for the “I feel your pain” response, not some of this actual active resolution business. I’ve always been a believer in journaling so I reluctantly took her advice and found out the craziest thing. When I was writing about what I was thankful to HAVE, I wasn’t focusing on what I didn’t have.
- I’m thankful I am able to walk.
- I’m thankful I have food to eat.
- I’m thankful that I have a job.
- I’m thankful that I have friends that love me.
Heck, even if I was attacked by a honey badger and flunked out of college, I still had those things going for me. I had SO many opportunities to write gratitude lists in my 20’s between break-ups, eating ramen as a staple, and praying for the tips to make rent that month. I think getting focused on the “I don’t have _____” mindset, kind of perpetuates the negative gunk that keeps us in that space to begin with. When you get in the habit of looking for the bad in this world, I promise you’re going to find it. Gratitude isn’t always so easy to find.
If you lost a loved one...
But what if things really stink? Of course. With my history of working for hospice, I’ve seen lots of people frustrated by a lack of things to celebrate. I mean, if your days are numbered and you have to have someone clean you up after going to the bathroom? That’s a tough one. Or say you lost your job and your home and had to declare bankruptcy. What if your wife left you with the kids and you got a DUI so you have to ride your bike everywhere? Some people’s lives sound curiously similar to old time country songs. They ARE hard! I’m not diminishing that at all. However, I have seen some humbling displays of gratitude among people who have endured horrible fates. A survivor of the holocaust, someone with MS who has been bed-bound for three years while blind, end-stage lung disease experiencing what they call air hunger- thankful- really and truly thankful for every moment they have. Wow. Here’s the thing. If you were abused as a child, be thankful you’re an adult and free of that situation. If you served in Vietnam and witnessed things that haunt you? Be thankful you aren’t there anymore. If you lost a loved one and feel empty and broken in a world without them? Be thankful you had every breath you shared with them. It was a gift. Gratitude is a wonderful way to address the really hard stuff. I do not diminish any loss, trauma or challenge you have faced by asking you to practice gratitude. I am giving you a tool to combat the dark space. You and I both know that space can creep in and leave things hollow. I don’t want that for anyone. I want people to have healing and joy in their life.
Why is gratitude such a big deal?
I’ve done all the research for you. Apparently a lot of doctors wanted to know the answer to that too. Studies show that people who practice gratitude experience stress resilience (bounce back from hard times), decreased depression, decreased anxiety, increased purpose in life, more willing to try new things and score higher on life satisfaction tests. That makes sense.
I call gratitude the kryptonite for depression. If you practice gratitude, not only will you enjoy the things I previously listed, but if you suffer from any mood disorder (depression, anxiety etc…) you will see a marked decrease in symptoms. Better yet, it’s not a pill and it’s 100% free!
Getting started can be a challenge. The people I work with that have a personal faith of some sort, are able to get the gratitude thing right away. They might be used to saying “Dear God, thank you for everything…” for others, they keep their gratitude to the thanksgiving table and that’s about it. I have a challenge for you. Go to the store and buy a composition notebook. If you’re feeling especially excited by this challenge, buy a pretty journal that makes you motivated to write. Every night before you go to bed, I want you to write in your gratitude notebook about something you are thankful for. It can be anything from “I’m thankful for my morning coffee” to “I’m thankful that my kid finished her spelling homework without a fight.” (I’m always thankful for that). Every night for one week. At the end of the week, I want you to look through that list of seven things. Guess what happens? You will smile. You will feel full of the “I have’s” instead of that “lack” feeling. It’s going to feel good and you will want to keep it up. Some patients have told me they get started and they don’t want to stop. Mainly because if you have a crummy day and open up that gratitude journal- you are reminded of ALL the good things in your life. Like I said- kryptonite for depression. It’s magic!
Gratitude is the kryptonite for depression. It's magic!
If you have kids, this is an amazing tool for them to get out of the “I want. I want. I want.” habit. Gosh, around birthdays or holidays when they start getting perked up for the newest tech toy or video game, they need gratitude more than I need a diet coke at 3 p.m. on a work day. It’s a great habit to get into. Make it a game. In my house we have a gratitude jar. After bath, brushed teeth and jammies, we write something we are thankful for in a jar and at the end of the year, on New Year’s Eve, we go through the jar and see all the wonderful things that have happened in our life. I’ve also used it when my daughter has a case of the crankies. I tell her exactly what my roommate told me back in 2000, “make a gratitude list!” I guess that means I have come full circle. What I can say is that gratitude has changed my life dramatically. I’m blessed to work in a field that makes this type of habit a necessity. I never tell people to do something that I wouldn’t do myself. I practice what I preach. I practice gratitude and you should too. You have nothing to lose and contentment to gain. Get your gratitude on!