‘COVID-19 pandemic enters year 3’. ‘Russia invades Ukraine’. ‘Inflation reaches highest levels in decades’. ‘Supreme Court overrules Roe v. Wade’. ‘Hurricanes Fiona, Ian wreaks havoc’. ‘Climate Change Has Made California’s Wildfires Five Times Bigger’. ‘New data reveals a disturbing number of working Australians struggling to afford basic needs’. These are only some of the many notable news headlines I’ve screenshot on my mobile phone over the last 12 months. It is no wonder we experience greater levels of psychological distress and defeat when we take the modern landscape into consideration. The news headlines might have an alarmist inflection, but they’re not lying. I should add that this blog isn’t a case of someone telling you to stop reading them because I don’t believe in the axiom that ignorance is bliss. As we previously highlighted in one of our previous blog posts about the ramifications of toxic positivity in today’s landscape, we must not push these stressful times under the rug for comfort. Knowledge is a powerful vessel for change. This is a blog to help you enjoy your life while also being cognisant of the world’s problems. It comes down to one tool, gratitude, which researchers are today describing as a muscle.
Gratitude exercises are a major component of therapeutic treatment plans
I am an atheist when it comes to the idea of a greater god. Though, I have always loved the notion of the ritual of saying grace at mealtime. My primary exposure to this being through film and television. I think it is a nice way of pausing, taking a moment and acknowledging the good fortune in sitting up at a table with people who you are (usually) quite fond of, and eating a meal. Many countries in the world have a day of grace whereby they celebrate, say thanks, and recognise the blessings and sacrifices of the previous 12 months, the most notable being USA’s Thanksgiving. Mental health professionals stress the importance of this kind of thinking, and today, they incorporate it into therapeutic treatment plans and advice on how to maintain stable levels of individual well-being. The term comes from the Latin term ‘gratia’, meaning grace, graciousness, or gratefulness. It denotes a positive emotional state where a person consciously appreciates their life circumstances. In this way, it is said to be both a state and a trait. It is a state someone enters in an isolated moment of time. Though, experiencing gratitude regularly over the long term is seen as a character trait, and a positive one at that.
Gratitude staves off negative emotional states
Gratitude has received a lot of attention over the past two decades. Research directly links the engagement with this state to increased access to positive emotion states, improved mental health, capacity to deal with adversity and stronger relationships. It appears to have a transformative effect on an individual’s life in the way it grounds the person in the present, magnifying the positives in the room and in their life. Additionally, when we perceive or receive gratitude from others in our personal or work relationships, it boosts our levels of self-worth because we are reminded that our life really does count for something. Finally, experiencing gratitude starves off negative emotional states like disappointment, regret, low moods, envy, jealousy, and resentment. The following three studies reveal how gratitude links to overall mood, our relationships and our role in the workplace.
Mood: Three groups were asked to keep a diary over several weeks. Group A (experimental group) was asked to write down things they were grateful for as they came up. Group B (experimental group) were asked to note down things that irritated or displeased them. Group C (control group) were asked to write about any events that affected them with no emphasis on the positive or negative. At the conclusion of the ten-week task, individuals in group A who kept a gratitude diary showed greater levels of optimism about their lives, the future and their peers.
Relationships: A study by researcher Allen W. Barton revealed the importance of gratitude on the health of an intimate relationship. Barton looked at 316 couples over a 15-month period. The study revealed higher levels of two-way perceived gratitude in a relationship protected couples from everyday external stressors like financial problems, flirting outside the relationship, and ineffective arguing. Perceived gratitude for their partner also showed higher relationship satisfaction, openness, and long-term commitment to the union.
Work: Perceived gratitude in the work environment is linked to work enjoyment, satisfaction and effort, especially when it is perceived in manager-employee relationships. A study from the University of Pennsylvania divided university fund-raisers into two groups. Group A received a pep-talk from their manager who expressed their gratitude to the fundraising efforts by the group. Group B were not given any kind of pep-talk and proceeded with fundraising efforts as usual. Results reveal that group A -recipients of gratitude – made 50% more outbound calls and accounted for a greater majority of the raised funds that week.
Most often, gratitude is a spontaneous emotion that floods you in the moment. Some people will be prone to experiencing gratitude more easily than others. It didn’t come so naturally to me initially. I’ve personally discovered the activity of swimming in open water provokes it in me. There is something about the weightless, coolness of the water on my body as well as being privy to the natural world. I experience a profound sense of gratitude in these moments that I know how to swim well, and that the natural world has given me such a remarkable space to do so in. Living and working conditions also affect your capacity to experience gratitude. Take a not-so-unique example of an individual who works a 45–60-hour week and has a young family at home to tend to outside of these working hours. This person might not have much time for breathing and sleeping let alone experiencing gratitude. If one does not have the time or skills to notice the good around them, it is unlikely that they will experience optimistic and positive affect states very often. This is an unsustainable and unhappy way to live which, in the long run, will lead to psychological distress.
Psychologists today encourage clients to cultivate feelings of gratitude through deliberate practice. This practice doesn’t require special tools or training or copious amounts of time. It is a useful state to cultivate. Especially for those times when you read the news headlines and feel like the world’s end date might be within our lifetime. Or when it feels like everything is riding on the outcome of an interview, date, presentation, or exam. In these moments of panic and overwhelm, it is natural to catastrophise. However, a person with a capacity for gratitude can ground themselves as they have a habit of noticing all the good in their life. This is immediately self-soothing and allows them to be calm and rational in how they approach the stressor. Gratitude also hones our resiliency, allowing ourselves to experience shortfalls, and to not let such shortfalls consume our perspective and attitudes. Hugh Van Cuylenburg further explains this correlation and his own personal revelations of gratitude in his book, which in my opinion is definitely worth the read.
Tips for cultivating gratitude
- Look around: take a moment, a proper, still, and quiet one, to observe the space and moment of time you are in. Engage with each sense, your breath, and the pace of your thoughts. This is a common meditation strategy, but it will get you into the habit of slowing down and grounding. This video from the School of Life perfectly encapsulates the notion of being thankful for the small things, we may unintentionally take for granted.
- Write it down: gratitude journals are all the rage now. Personally, I scrunched my face at the idea when I first heard it. Though, I have developed a small one using the notes page on my phone, the same phone in which I read and screenshot the horrible news headlines of the latest world problems. If you want to really get invested in the art of gratitude, Grateful Living has a fantastic (and free!) online gratitude journal as well as other informative articles concerning gratitude. I enjoy looking back over them when I’m feeling particularly down or despondent; they are a great source of comfort. I imagine a book of these observations would be unique, one that collated people’s journals from all over the world in brief one-sentence reflections.
- Ritualise it: if it is new to you, try ritualising it to begin with. This could be just a small conscious meditation at the time your feet touch the ground in the morning, in your shower before bed or while you wait for your morning cup of coffee.
- Say your thanks: verbalise or make your gratitude known to others. You may think it is unnecessary, or you’ll do it sometime in the future. But I challenge you to give me a valid reason why you should put it off, why you shouldn’t express to a person the thanks and gratitude you feel? Why not also practise some self-compassion, and extend the thanking to yourself for enduring the many challenges that you have pulled yourself through?
If self-compassion, gratitude and mindful awareness of the present are areas you’d like to develop further, it might be worth discussing these with a psychologist. You can contact our lovely admin team to discuss what this might look like and find out more.