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Friday, November 18, 2011

Feeling Gratitude Even When Life is Difficult

If you are familiar with me, you likely know my view that from a mental health perspective Thanksgiving is the most important holiday of the year. Psychological research confirms what philosophers and spiritual leaders have long taught – living life with a sense of gratitude is a key to happiness. Grateful people report higher levels of positive emotions, life satisfaction and lower levels of depression and stress. Thankful people demonstrate a higher capacity for empathy. The healthiest human emotion is gratitude. Science has proven that having a thankful attitude improves immune functioning and makes one more resistant to stress. People who are grateful are happy, and people who are ungrateful are miserable. The value of consciously focusing on appreciation for blessings in life is really indisputable.

However, there can be times when being thankful is really, really hard. Those who have recently experienced the loss of a loved one, or the foreclosure of a home, or a loss of employment, may find it difficult to identify the other happier aspects of life that also are there. When life is hard – and life is hard for many people today – it can be really easy to see only the negative.

In difficult times gratitude can be a tool to help focus on what is still good and a way to cope with loss and pain. Even with intense grief, a conscious decision to look for things in life to feel grateful for can be powerful. This doesn’t mean a stop to grieving loss, but that there is a focus away from the loss for a time. This can be helpful in navigating the grieving process.

A recently published book by Kelly Buckley titled Gratitude in Grief documents her journey following the sudden death of her 23 year old son. The author stated “One thing has helped me breathe, and that is finding at least one little thing to be grateful for each day, in spite of the pain.” Her writing is a powerful and moving testament to the value of gratitude during even the most unimaginable pain.

Mary J. Lore, author of the book Managing Thought: How Do Your Thoughts Rule Your World? , writes: “During difficult times, we may find ourselves struggling with thoughts of fear, self-doubt, anger, frustration, anxiety, depression, and despair. These kinds of thoughts do not inspire you nor do they move you in a direction that serves your purpose - - in fact, they make matters worse.” Lore advices the following daily practices:

• List everything you are thankful for. Be sure to include what you are thankful for with respect to what you may be most unhappy about.
• At the end of each day, work backward and think of everything you are thankful for from that day.
• Throughout each day, take note of what you are thankful for and be grateful for each experience.
• When you find yourself thinking self-defeating or negative thoughts, take a deep breath, and ask “What can I be thankful for in this moment?”

Even during difficult times, as we practice being thankful, we access a more positive spirit. We improve our relationships, our creativity, and our lives. Gratitude and giving thanks for all we are blessed with every day allows us to enjoy life more fully – even during painful times.

“It’s not easy being grateful all the time. But it’s when you feel least thankful that you are most in need of what gratitude can give you.” ~Oprah Winfrey~

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