Searching For Gratitude
Every year, at this time of year, I face a dilemma: what do I want to write about in the December edition of my newsletter, The Listening Ear? In the early years of Willow Tree Counselling, it was easier, as there were some obvious themes to write about: as a counsellor and personally, I have recognized how challenging the holiday season can be for folks: standards, loneliness and the fact that sometimes it just seems like a matter of survival.
I recognize that one thing that bothers a number of us is the materialism that has become so rampant at this time of year, along with the myth that accompanies this: that material things make us happy. Albert Einstein argued the opposite: “Each possession I own is but a stone around my neck.” Possessions can become an enormous burden in our lives, complicating things physically and emotionally, writes author Marie Kondo in her book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, one of my favourite reads in the last two years.
I don’t want to take an extreme or simplistic approach here, shunning all material objects. This is not my message, for many possessions are useful and do make our lives easier! If I had to choose between counselling on a hard kitchen chair or my armchair, my armchair would win hands down!
And I don’t want to make a political statement about the holidays either—to me this would detract from what I really want to get to today: gratitude.
Gratitude does not depend on getting, or possessing, despite the fact that it is often experienced as a state of abundance. It is a teaching of all major world religions, and in more recent times, has been studied more extensively by psychologists.
One of the most memorable articles I read in the past year looked at practices which enhance our sense of wellbeing, summarizing extensively from the book The Upward Spiral, about the neuroscience of depression. Gratitude was identified as key in improving wellbeing. What particularly struck me about the research was that it is the search for gratitude, even if nothing can be identified, that enhances wellbeing. This article, in quoting the book, notes that just the mental quest itself itself activates the brain stem which produces dopamine, as well as boosting serotonin levels. To me, this is very hopeful as it the process, not the result, that is important! We don’t have to generate something to necessarily feel better.
Why Invoke Gratitude?
I actually think this is a very personal question, and while there may be some universal reasons and some definite neurological benefits, we are all different. I also believe that when we ask this question of ourselves, for ourselves, we get different responses than when we look at this question universally or theoretically. And to me, gratitude is a very personal pursuit.
Here are some reasons for why I choose to practice gratitude:
- Increases contentment and equanimity.
- Decreases mental suffering, as mental suffering is caused by wanting things to be other than they are.
- Increases appreciation and respect for a number of things such as people and animals, objects, situations, kind acts.
- Can be searched for anywhere.
- The search does involve a financial cost or special circumstances.
Barriers to Practicing Gratitude
There are times when we believe that it is not possible to be grateful:
Belief: Gratitude Dishonours Situations, Emotions or Cognitive States
It would seem that one of the biggest obstacles to gratitude is the belief that invoking gratitude somehow dishonours ourselves, our situation or other people. This is where the principle of dialectics comes in, which represents a antidote to ‘all or nothing thinking,’ a common cognitive distortion. In the simplest definition of dialectical philosophy, opposite views can coexist and through dialogue or investigation, can achieve synthesis. As writer Christy Matta states, “there might be your truth and my truth, but there is no search for absolute truth.” This principle forms the basis of Dialectical Behaviour Therapy.
In other words, we can honour the difficulty and complexity of any situation or emotional state, while also searching for gratitude. There are multiple realities here. We don’t have to choose.
Belief: I Can’t Find Anything to Be Grateful About
Sometimes, as hard as we try, nothing is coming to us. As I discussed earlier, this is not a problem, it is the willingness to search, not the end result, that has the greatest impact on our wellbeing.
Belief: I Am Too Busy to Be Grateful
It is easy to see how gratitude could seem to be time consuming! Some practices would ask us to carve out time in our day just to be grateful, while some of us are in situations so busy that finding even more time for just one more thing, almost pushes us over the edge. I don’t believe that gratitude should be a time suck. I will talk about some strategies later in this article.
Belief: I Am Too Stressed to be Grateful
Indeed, it is more difficult to concentrate on gratitude when we are stressed, although it may be just what we need at the time! To me, it is important not to apply additional pressure on ourselves to search or to find it, only adding to our stress, but instead to know that the option is there when we are ready.
Belief: My Situation is Too Difficult to be Grateful
Sometimes we are in a circumstance of just merely surviving: physically, emotionally or mentally, and searching for gratitude is low on our list of priorities. It is always important to take care of whatever is in front of us, and gratitude may or may not present as an option. Again, this is not an “either or” situation; we may find gratitude an important part of our coping strategy, or not. I have never seen gratitude hurt a person in a crisis, as long as gratitude is not expected or insisted upon.
Belief: I Am Too Mad to Be Grateful
Understood! We need to acknowledge where we are emotionally, without judgement, and let go of pressure to move on before we’re ready. Gratitude is an option that may or may not seem realistic when you are angry or experiencing any other strong emotion. Some people find it helpful and interesting to hold both the emotion in question, and gratitude together, coexisting, while others want to move through one at a time or let go of any pressure to get to gratitude on a timeline. Experiment with what works best for you.
Belief: Gratitude is Fake
It may be, if it’s not something you’re genuinely grateful for! I am a firm believer in following your own instincts around this and not reading from lists that don’t resonate for you or choosing things that you think you are “supposed” to be grateful for. It should also be relevant and related to your life!
Belief: Gratitude’s Gotta Be Big
This one brings out my inner humbug. One of my favourite things to do is to find gratitude in the smallest and most seemingly mundane things. This kind of search brings a lot more meaning to my everyday life and dispels ideas and pressure around only grand or sweeping changes being relevant.
Tips for Practicing Gratitude
Of course, everyone is different when it comes to the practice of gratitude. This is what has worked for me:
- Keep it real – Make it specific to you and what is going on in your life, not what you think you are supposed to feel grateful for. I might be initially disappointed when I noticed that I ran out of buttermilk for my muffins, but grateful to find some yogurt in the fridge to substitute that would work just fine. People holding doors for me in the elevator have been a frequent source of gratitude these days, with my broken foot and my slower-moving ways.
- Find it in the everyday – I love mundane opportunities for gratitude, as I mentioned above. This works for me because it reflects my lived experience and doesn’t require fancy situations or ideas. If I can’t find gratitude in real life, what use is it to me?
- Be specific – I personally avoid wide-reaching concepts which remove the personal factor. Even saying something like “I’m grateful for my friends” seems too removed. But if I were to think, I am grateful that [name of friend] brought up that funny story when I was having a down day, or I’m grateful that we could spend some time talking at the coffee shop, it brings it home.
- Keep it Simple – I like to spot things as they occur, and make mental notes. Writing things down can be good too, even excellent for some people, although I might forget or perceive that I don’t have time. And I don’t have to worry about holding onto gratitude thoughts – there are opportunities for gratitude at almost every turn!
Thank you for reading!
Interested in getting my articles delivered to your inbox once a month? Sign up to my newsletter, The Listening Ear.