How often do you feel grateful? We hear about gratitude at least once a year when Thanksgiving rolls around. We occasionally are asked, “what are you grateful for?” But, isn’t gratitude a practice worth reflecting on more often than just once a year or arbitrarily? Amidst the current pressures of daily life and what seems like a revolving door of crises in the news, you may be thinking it is nearly impossible to feel grateful lately. Giving attention to what we are grateful for in this context may feel dismissive of the very real tragedies taking place. The good news is that we do not have to dismiss the fears, anxieties, and misfortunes of the past and present in order to practice gratitude today. We can practice gratitude that still includes, and even welcomes, the acknowledgement of our hurts and worries.
Research, in fact, points to the importance of doing just that – acknowledging both our pleasant and unpleasant experiences and emotions. Some people tend to think that if we eliminate our negative experiences and emotions, we will be left with only positives. This is not always the case. Instead, we could end up in a neutral zone and still feel like we are not flourishing. Research has pointed out that positive and negative emotions have distinct predicting factors and are not dependent on each other (Compton & Hoffman, 2013). So, while practicing gratitude and expanding on our positive emotions can be greatly beneficial, it is not enough to see true happiness and fulfillment in our lives; we must also allow space for and appreciate our negative experiences and emotions.
Some benefits of recognizing and expanding on our experiences of positive emotions include better physical health, fewer symptoms of illnesses, longer lives, and greater success later in life (Compton & Hoffman, 2013). Allen (2018) summarizes what researchers at the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley have found about the benefits of gratitude. Allen (2018) details that people who practice gratitude report greater achievement of their goals, optimism, improved well-being, and decreased anxiety and depression symptoms. This all sounds great, but the reality is that we do not ONLY have positive experiences or positive emotions throughout our lives. Our negative emotions and experiences tell us information too. The benefits of these negatives are that they can teach us more about ourselves, our values, and our strengths. Additionally, they can point us in the direction of growth.
So, what is the take-away?
Gratitude will not magically take away or eliminate your negative experiences. Gratitude is a great practice to expand your positive emotions and experiences while you continue to explore feelings, values, and goals in your life. In the context of positive psychology, Compton and Hoffman (2013) summarize that practicing gratitude regularly can lead to benefits in well-being by decreasing stress and depression, as well as strengthening social relationships, life satisfaction, and optimism. Some simple ways to start practicing gratitude in your life today are:
- Start a gratitude journal. Once a week, list 3 experiences from that week that you are grateful for.
- Try out a guided meditation focused on gratitude.
- Ask friends, family, or colleagues what they are grateful for today. Share your gratitude lists with them as well.
We need to remember that it is also just as important for us to acknowledge, validate, and attend to our neutral and negative emotions as well. What are some ways to do this?
- Practice naming your emotions (for example: I am feeling angry, sad, nervous, etc).
- Practice mindfulness by becoming aware of how you feel in the present moment and reflecting on it non-judgmentally.
- Take time to reflect on what has been holding space in your mind lately. Consider talking with someone in your support system or a professional about these thoughts and feelings.
At Counseling Works, our expert therapists can help you with this. Call today to get started!