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Gratitude: Just a Trendy Word or a Form of Mental Training?

It's a typical Thursday night in our IOP program. Our teens are hard at work creating Self-Compassion Action Plans, chatting casually amongst themselves. One teen is lamenting the change of seasons as the weather becomes colder and less forgiving. Without thinking, I respond: "Sounds like an opportunity to break out some cute sweaters and scarves!"

As the room chuckles and begins to discuss optimum sweater-weather attire, another teen blurts out (in a half-admiring, half-exasperated tone): "Do your friends ever get sick of your constant optimism?"

I can't help but laugh. "Of course they do! But I’d rather let them be annoyed than change the way I find the good in the world."

It's an exchange that has stuck with me for a while. While it's true that I'm well-known for attempting to put a positive spin on things, I don't think of myself as a hopeless optimist or a relentless chaser of silver linings. Unlike true optimists, I don't believe in disqualifying the negative things in life - I think it's important to acknowledge the ways we've been hurt, especially in situations that are objectively bad, hurtful, traumatizing, and so on. We grow just as much from our stormy days as we do from our sunny ones, and I believe in embracing the gifts that both kinds of days have to offer.

I prefer to think of it as opportunism… and at the heart of opportunism is gratitude.

“Gratitude” seems like one of those sticky catch-all words. It conjures up the image of a family at Thanksgiving dinner going around the table and professing all that they are grateful for. It conjures up images of writing thank-you cards for gifts (an oft-dreaded practice). These are certainly good practices of gratitude - and there’s more to living a gratitude-driven lifestyle than a simple “thank you”!

Gratitude is an expression of mindfulness just as much as it is an expression of appreciation. It is an intentional shift in your attention towards the beneficial features of daily life.  It is a practice that cultivates flexibility, creativity, and persistence. Sometimes it takes an enormous stretch of the imagination to find ways of finding opportunities for gratitude within hardship. Other times, it takes a lot of energy to slow down and truly notice the small gifts within our daily routines that, in our hectic lifestyles, we so often fail to notice. But studies have shown time and again that gratitude makes a significant impact on mental health, due in large part to the neural pathways being rewired.

Consider the default function of the human brain: it is fundamentally wired for survival at all costs. One of those survival mechanisms includes a “worst case scenario” function, where we are naturally primed to look for potential consequences and dangers in daily experience and, by so doing, avoid harm. We are wired to look for negatives - it’s normal, and it has served an important evolutionary function! But when we over-develop that mechanism, we become paralyzed by the “what-ifs”, or we give too much credit to our fatalistic thoughts, and as a result we live in a constant state of fear and pessimism. Studies have shown that the practice of gratitude results in changes in cognition and perception as the brain begins to rewire to find more opportunities for contentment, satisfaction, and safety within the present moment.

Gratitude is not blind insistence on a silver lining. So often we hear others encourage us to "look on the bright side", or "just be grateful that...", or "you should be more thankful for...". While these words are said with the best of intentions, it is typically implied that we must discount the negative thing that is currently in our lap before we can reap the benefits of gratitude. In reality, gratitude does not require you to downplay or ignore your hardships, but instead find the goodness that coincides alongside these hardships.

For example: Instead of forcing yourself to be thankful for the loss of a close loved one (which, let's face it, is an enormous stretch), gratitude sounds like this: "I am in pain over their loss, and I am grateful for the opportunity to celebrate their life with my family, whom I so rarely get to see. I will miss them terribly, and I am grateful for the legacy that lives on in me."

Instead of thanking a careless driver for totaling your car and threatening your life, gratitude sounds like: "I am scared and angry about this incident, and I grateful to have survived. I am scared about what is coming next, and I am grateful for the care provided to me by my doctors and loved ones."

Gratitude is like panning for gold: There’s a lot of stuff that will get stuck in your net in life, but the shining bits that you do find make it all worth it.

Here are some gratitude practices you can try at home!

  1. “Spin It” game - Like most political campaigns have publicity “spin teams” that try to make their candidate sound good no matter what they say, we can also practice putting a positive spin on anything! Challenge yourself to think of some negative scenarios, and see how many positive things you can pull out of them.

  2. Gratitude Journal - take some time throughout your day to document the parts of your day that you found pleasant, enjoyable, or tolerable. These can be big moments, such as performing well on a big test, or small moments, like finding a particularly lovely leaf on your way into work. See how many you can write down, and watch how your mind begins open to the positives.

  3. Thank-You Notes - Identify people that have made a positive impact on your life in some small way - your favorite barista, a custodial staff at your office, or a coworker - and take the time to write them a note of appreciation. Allow yourself to notice the small ways that people have helped you along your daily journey… and people respond in beautiful ways when they feel acknowledged and appreciated. It’s a win-win!

  4. Replace “Obligations” With “Opportunity” - I have to thank The Office for this tip. As you approach daily tasks or big life events that are boring, scary, intimidating, or triggering, challenge yourself to use the word “opportunity” when you refer to these things. Ask yourself: What kind of opportunities might be waiting for me within this scary, upsetting, or negative thing? (We tend to overanalyze negative "what-ifs" without giving enough credence to positive (and equally as likely what-ifs).

Written by Caroline Whitaker, MS, NCC