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How a Gratitude Practice Helps Us Feel Better Despite Life’s Circumstances

Recently, I conducted a follow up psychiatry appointment with a patient diagnosed with both Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (also known as PTSD), and depression. He had experienced horrific trauma while serving in the military, and was receiving mental health services for the nightmares and flashbacks that haunted him many years later.

On the drive to work that day, I noticed just how different life had become in the few short weeks since the Coronavirus pandemic swept through our country. There were no school buses to stop for along my commute, as all the children were quarantined at home. And now, before being allowed through the hospital gates for work, I had to pass through check points verifying that I did not have symptoms consistent with infection. The usually bustling halls of the clinic were noticeably quieter, as our facility transitioned many of our in-person appointments to video and phone.

I noticed changes within myself also. I had developed a heightened sense of awareness of the many ways I could potentially be exposed. I now reflexively avoided walking too close to others, and held my breath anytime someone coughed in my vicinity. I more often than not wanted to retreat to my home, where I felt safer and more in control of my surroundings and exposures.

As usual, I started the appointment by asking my patient how he was doing lately, and

was surprised to hear him describe feeling calm and content despite the pandemic upheaval around him. He told me how instead of focusing on the negative aspects of life, he had been intentionally turning his attention to all the things he was grateful for, and was feeling better now than he had in a long time. He shared his gratitude that the pandemic had spurred the members of a social club he belonged to call and check on elderly people in their community, and the joy he received from showing kindness to another person. He also told me how since moving from his home state several years ago, he had lost touch with friends in a community group of which he was once a part. And while it initially seemed inconvenient for the group to no longer convene in person, he was grateful for the new online video format that allowed him to re-connect with old friends he had lost touch with when he moved away.

It turns out his gratitude was a powerful treatment for improving his mood and reducing his anxiety, even in the midst of uncertain times.

My patient reminded me that day of the power of gratitude in our daily lives, and especially now when life leaves us wishing that things were different. Gratitude is defined in the dictionary as “the quality of being thankful; readiness to show appreciation”. The positive effects of gratitude on our emotional health and well-being is not just theoretical; it has been the topic of multiple scientific studies that support this finding. One particularly popular study was conducted by psychologists Robert A. Emmons and Michael E. McCullough and is detailed in their paper entitled “Counting Blessings Versus Burdens: An Experimental Investigation Of Gratitude And Subjective Well-being In Daily Life”. Their study divided participants into 3 groups instructed to keep a daily journal. One group wrote daily about things they were grateful for, another group wrote about things that irritated or displeased them, and the third group wrote about the neutral occurrences of their days with no focus on either the positives or negatives. The study showed that the group who wrote about what they were grateful everyday enjoyed a greater sense of wellbeing and optimism. They also exercised more and required fewer doctors visits than the group that focused on the negative aspects of their lives.

As I have discussed in previous posts (linked here and here), our thoughts cause our emotions.

In other words, we feel the way we think.

Being grateful focuses our thoughts on what we already have, and the positive emotions that are already available to us right now. It extinguishes our human tendency to wish for what we do not have, which only leads to feelings of deprivation, sadness and worry. I find that it is impossible for grateful thoughts and negative emotions to exist in the same moment. If you want to feel greater contentment and satisfaction in your life despite what is going on around you, intentionally focus on what you have to be grateful for, and watch your mood improve.

Here are some actionable steps to help you start incorporating a gratitude practice into your daily life:

1. Choose a time that you’d like to devote to your gratitude practice, a few minutes each day, and if possible around the same time each day. Doing so helps you establish a routine that you are more likely to stick with. Many choose to do so at night before bed, as you have a day’s worth of events to reflect on.

2. Write down 5 good things that happened that day; things that made you happy or that you can express thanks for, whether big or small. Can’t think of 5? Start with 3. It is important to choose a number that works for you, and to actually write out your list (don’t just think about it).

3. Now, as you read your list of good things, pause for a few seconds or more and really reflect on and savor the positive feelings that you had around each experience. Chances are, as you read the list those positive emotions come up for you in the moment — take a little time to enjoy those good feelings.

4. Repeat steps 1-3 daily. Doing this simple practice regularly helps train your mind to search for the positives, express gratitude regularly, and will help improve your sense of well-being in life, regardless of life’s circumstances.

You've Got This,

Dr. Jeannie

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