We walk through stores littered with decor saying “Give thanks!” and “Be grateful!”, and as clinicians, I’m sure we’ve all recommended that our clients write a gratitude list, or share with us the things they are grateful for. But why do we do this? It seems that gratitude is pressed upon for maybe one season of the year, but is that enough?
The truth is that gratitude runs much deeper than recognizing the possessions you have or saying thank you to a friend. The difference between giving thanks and being grateful is that gratitude is a profound quality inside of you, a pure and genuine feeling of appreciation and compassion; it can’t be forced or faked. Not only is gratitude a pleasant feeling in the moment, recurrent gratitude has been shown to have a plethora of positive mental and physical effects, including decreasing stress, irritability, and negative cognition. Further, gratitude can also increase motivation, empathy, and even our physical energy. By being grateful, we can live happier and more optimistic lifestyles, improving our overall quality of life.
Gratitude redirects focus away from the negative, i.e. what we want and don’t have, or negative self talk, to a more positive perspective. Routine practice can change maladaptive behaviors, like acting on frustration about having to stop to get gas or getting angry at your spouse for accidentally burning a hole in your favorite shirt, and help reframe the situation to appreciating that you have a car or the effort intended in trying to iron the laundry. Gratitude can also have positive effects on our own image of ourselves, helping us to see all the good qualities we have rather than those we consider less healthy.
While it can’t be forced or faked, gratitude can be learned. We can foster genuine gratitude within ourselves with frequent and focused practices. Practicing gratitude means paying attention and functioning with intention, the lists and letters don’t mean much if there isn’t thought behind them. Learning to be grateful can at first require daily effort and routine, such as in the Loving Kindness meditation below, but over time these practices can become habitual, and being grateful can become a state of mind.
To aid you in your gratitude efforts, whether in session with clients or in your own lives this holiday season (and after), below are Three Practices. The attachment provides instructions for each practice and how each one can help improve the ability to be grateful, as well as improve relationships with others.
The first practice is a Loving Kindness meditation, described by Sharon Salzburg to help deepen our spiritual connection with ourselves and with others. This practice takes only a few minutes, and is designed to “soften and break down the barriers that we feel inwardly to ourselves, and then those that we feel towards others”.
The next, a gratitude letter, is a direct practice in gratitude designed for recognition of a benefactor, i.e someone that has made a positive impact. This practice helps the client to identify a person and explain specifically what they’ve done to better the client’s life and allow the two to deepen and appreciate their connection.
And finally, from narrative therapy, a third practice called a “thickening story”. This is a daily practice that focuses on internal gratitude and changing negative cognition in the client to improve self image and worth. It’s a simple practice that over time has a powerful impact.
And the most important thing to remember is this: true gratitude is not based on the expectation of exchange; we need not have the favor returned in order to reap the benefits for ourselves.