By Tracu Stein, PhD.MPH, Complementary and Alterantive Medicine Topic Expert Contributor
Gratitude is associated with a number of mental health benefits. There appears to be variability with regard to how often one feels grateful, but experiencing gratitude can be profoundly, deeply healing. When we are grateful, we leave little room for resentment, anger, self-righteousness, or envy; these emotions are incompatible with appreciating what is good about a circumstance or person.
Gratitude also fosters openness. At any given point in time, any one of us can identify others who are more or less fortunate than we are. Being in a state of gratitude reminds us that even in difficult situations, and when dealing with difficult people, there is almost always something that we can find—even if it requires space and time to do so—for which we can be grateful.
Gratitude in the Face of Difficulty
Many years ago, I worked with a man I’ll call “Rich” who had multiple medical problems that caused severe pain and limited financial resources. During the course of our work, Rich became confined to a wheelchair as his health continued to decline. The medications he received gave Rich only very limited relief, and his inability to work cost him both his home and his ability to get around without assistance.
Rich never insinuated that his situation didn’t challenge him to his core, nor did he pretend that if a cure was available he wouldn’t avail himself of it. When he was angry or frightened—which was often—Rich was honest about this. Yet, despite multiple and severe challenges to his sense of self, Rich frequently expressed gratitude for many things, including our time together. He was also able to delight in the simple and mundane, such as the multisensory pleasure inherent in drinking a cup of earl grey tea, or watching a sunset, or in receiving some small kindness from a stranger. I believe that Rich’s gratitude made his life more bearable, and likely extended his time here.
Most of my practice involves working with people who have experienced health issues, and many of those who come to see me struggle with chronic pain. Still others who enter into therapy are tasked with finding a way to feel safe in the world following a trauma, see positives despite depression or anxiety, or develop healthy relationships, even though they may not have experienced adequate nurturing. When one’s body changes in such a way that function is compromised, one’s appearance is altered, and/or one is challenged to find a sort of equilibrium in the presence of ongoing painful or otherwise unpleasant physical or emotional symptoms, it can feel especially difficult to find any silver lining.
In the face of difficulty, we all can quite easily and legitimately find reasons to be angry, envious, fearful, resentful, or filled with despair. It is important to create space to allow ourselves to feel whatever comes up, rather than denying our emotions, If we can step back from the situation, whatever it is in the present moment, and see the larger picture, quite often we can identify things for which we can be truly grateful. And this can be liberating.
What Does the Research Show?
A number of studies have looked at the links between gratitude and other psychological and social outcomes. Emmons and Mishra (2011) reviewed and summarized the literature on gratitude and well-being in a recent book chapter. They found that dispositional gratitude has been associated with greater emotional well-being, empthy, forgivenss, and willingness to help others, as well as the ability to recognize the contributions of others to one’s own successes. Although it is unclear which generates which, people who experience gratitude also tend to have higher levels of self-esteem.
Gratitude and Generosity Versus Materialism
The authors also found that gratitude is incompatible with materialism. Grateful people are less likely to define themselves in terms of their accomplishments and possessions, are more generous with what they have, and are less likely to envy the possessions or accomplishments of others.
Gratitude as an emotional and cognitive state is freeing because anger, resentment, jealousy and envy, when experienced for too long, become a virtual prison. Even as a situation improves, if we cling to the pain of what we do not have, or what another does have, or what we wish was different, we cannot really feel free.
In addition to the above, gratitude prompts us to both appreciate what we have right now and to seek to help others; it fosters reciprocity, generosity, and a sense that one is an important part of a larger whole. Thus, gratitude for one’s good fortune can lead to a sense of satisfaction from being helpful or generous—regardless of whether that good deed is common knowledge or results in some sort of reciprocal gain.
How to Cultivate Gratitude?
- Keep a journal. Research has found that daily or weekly journaling increases feelings of gratitude. Journaling is also associated with fewer health complaints, reduced envy, a more positive attitude in general, and feeling more spiritually connected. Those who engaged in this practice also got more exercise and viewed their families more positively.
- Practice mindfulness.. This anchors one in the present moment, fosters a nonjudgmental stance, and can help one to notice what simply is—the easy, the challenging, and the neutral—rather than focusing solely on what is hard.
- Guided imagery or self-hypnosis can be used to help refocus on everyday blessings and shrink negative internal images down to size. Additionally, these tools have been shown to help in the management of unpleasant bodily sensations (pain, nausea, etc.) and emotions.
- Do a good deed every day. Doing so can shift our attention away from what is stressful or unpleasant and remind us that we can be a force for positive change. If we are fortunate, the desire to do good can be contagious. And for this we can be very grateful indeed.
Emmons, R. A., and Mishra, A. (2011). Why Gratitude Enhances Well-Being: What We Know, What We Need to Know. In Kennon M. Sheldon, Todd B. Kashdan, Michael F. Steger (Eds.), Designing Positive Psychology: Taking Stock and Moving Forward. Oxford University Press.
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