If the thought of practicing gratitude feels perplexing, you are certainly not alone. Many of us grew up with traditions and customs focused on gratitude, especially during holiday celebrations. But what is gratitude? Is it an emotion? A habit? A virtue? Gratitude can be difficult to define, and even harder to commit to practicing regularly.
Cultural expectations may pressure us to be grateful for what we have, which can feel disingenuous at times. As a result, I tend to be cautious of those who preach gratitude. But despite my misgivings, I have found that taking time to actively reflect on what I am thankful for on a regular basis has been beneficial for my mental health and increased my capacity to endure challenges.
My gripes with gratitude
There is no shortage of wellness teachers telling us we could easily change our lives if our thoughts were just more positive! Our culture tends to reward the expression of happy emotions while penalizing the expression of anger, sadness, fear, and beyond. This idea is called toxic positivity and can be found in every facet of our lives, from work culture to social media to our relationship with drinking.
Gratitude can also be weaponized by those seeking to preserve the status quo. For example, if we bring a problem up at work, our boss might shame us for being ungrateful, dismiss us as being too negative, or tell us “it could be worse.” In cases such as these, portraying gratitude as a moral virtue can lead to feelings of inadequacy on our part, while allowing the other party to dismiss our concerns and avoid scrutiny.
Problems arise when we deny our true human experiences by minimizing the pain we are feeling. Forcing an outlook that “all is well” (when it may not be) can contribute to the negativity we were trying to avoid in the first place. This may be especially difficult when working toward changing your relationship with alcohol. Processing new and difficult emotions may not come easily if we limit our permissible emotions to happiness and gratitude. Personally, when I find the time to reflect, I try to honor anger, sadness, jealousy, or any other emotion that arises. Welcoming the entire spectrum of emotions often leaves me in a better place than if I had tried to suppress those feelings to focus only on the positive.
With these thoughts in mind, I believe we can still build a practice of gratitude that is attainable, nurturing, and suited to our individual needs.
My gratitude practice
I began playing around with the idea of practicing gratitude when I realized my habit of ruminating was clouding my memories. The day I spent outdoors in the sun was remembered as the day I got hangry and fought with my partner on the way home. The night spent catching up with friends was remembered by the moment I spilled my drink across the table. The otherwise rewarding day at work was remembered by the one patient who was angry I was running late and left in the middle of the visit.
I was hopeful that a gratitude practice would help me remember my reality more accurately, with less of a focus on the negative. Additionally, I knew that ruminating was a hallmark of depression and anxiety. So, I began writing down a few lines at the end of each day (or at least whenever I had the time and energy to do so), trying to include both negative and positive things that had happened during that day. Over time I started to see changes in my thinking. The day was less likely to be thrown off by one or two inevitably negative moments. I began to feel more appreciative of the things most important to me, and better able to recognize when they were showing up in my life.
Despite my skepticism that gratitude is a panacea for all of life’s problems, I do believe that gratitude has been a useful tool in my collection of self-care practices. It has helped me guard myself against feelings of inadequacy, of not being enough, and of not having enough (even amidst the stream of materialistic messages inundating us constantly).
Managing your drinking through quarantine
Benefits of and strategies for a gratitude practice
Studies have shown that practicing gratitude in its different forms can reduce stress, decrease depressive symptoms, and help us do better academically and professionally. Other studies have shown it may boost our immune system and improve pain and sleep scores. Practicing gratitude may even change the activity of the brain long-term. One study where individuals wrote gratitude letters showed that three months later, participants had greater neural modulation in the medial prefrontal cortex.
Many quick and simple ways of practicing gratitude have been studied, the most common being:
- Journaling about things for which to be grateful
- Thinking about someone for whom you are grateful
- Writing or sending a letter to someone for whom you are grateful
- Meditating on gratitude
- Writing down three things for which you were grateful at the end of the week
- Practicing saying “thank you” in a sincere way
- Writing thank-you notes
Most of these interventions can be done in a few minutes a day or a couple of times a week. I hope this inspires you to try or revisit a gratitude habit! And, if you’re sick of hearing about gratitude, I think that’s okay too. 🙂