Gratitude

I am truly THANKFUL that you are here reading this. I am appreciative of your time, the journey that you’re on to grow as a person, and the hope that your future holds”. The intention of this article is to provide education on how gratitude can add value to your life. In addition, I will be providing some practical exercises to help you jumpstart your expedition with gratefulness.

What is gratitude?

Gratitude is something that we are aware of but often do not use to its full and most powerful potential. Likely you use and hear gratitude in multiple settings that often involve brief human interaction. Grocery store trips, Thanksgiving Dinners, Delivery drop-offs, Thank you cards, and momentary passes with coworkers. Some use “thank you” as a universal sign of being polite, and others seem to not have the words in their vocabulary. Regardless of the frequency in which you participate, it is my honest and genuine belief that every person can benefit from bringing an additional amount of gratefulness into their life.

Why do we need gratitude?

Being grateful in my experience is a necessary component  for a full and happy life. When we are not using gratitude in all of its facets there tends to be a focus on what we do not have, do not understand, and cannot overcome. However, by incorporating intentional expressions of thankfulness into our lives, by default there will be a perspective shift towards what we do have versus what we don’t.  As humans we will experience both perspectives listed above, however the more important question is to which perspective you will give your primary focus and attention.

If your focus in on what you do not have, there will be an associated level of comparison to others who possess what you do not. A focus on your shortcomings may lead to temporary motivation, however this reinforces the shortcoming itself rather than the lesson learned or the road traveled. Spending time assessing what you cannot accomplish takes away from the time you have to accomplish what you can.

On the Contrary, when more energy is focused on what we have, what we do understand, and what we have accomplished this creates a level of appreciation that no one can take away. Being truly grateful and expressing it in a way that is purposeful can fill you with a sense of accomplishment, peace and content.  Even when you fail or make a mistake if you approach this challenge with gratitude there is a lesson and benefit that can be extracted . This level of genuine reflection can be difficult, however with practice can become a pillar of your overall happiness.

What keeps us from being grateful?

            There are many reasons why gratefulness may not be a core component of peoples lives. Greed, Resentment, Jealousy, Powerlessness, and Loneliness are a few of the deep-rooted emotions that can lead to an absence of gratitude. Not only big emotions seed a lack of appreciation. Life itself has a way of demoralizing and burning  people out. In return this leads to us focusing on our hardship and takes our attention away from the good that could be gained.  We will all loose something and someone important to us, fail to reach a goal, and feel overwhelmed. When we experience events such as these it is extremely difficult to be grateful but possible. Finding ways to express gratitude about the most difficult things in our life has an interesting way of reminding us of all we have even in despair. In many circumstances my patients who have experienced tragic loss have experienced a similar awakening. They say things along the lines of, “ You don’t know what you have unitl its gone, this loss made me realize how thankful I am, or I wish I did not have to lose them to realize how much I appreciated them”. This is insightful and is furthermore an example of why we need to express gratitude as soon as we have the chance rather then waiting until something happens that forces our gratitude to the surface.

Lets look at an example that can show us how to extract gratitude even in a difficult situation. The following patients identifying information and some background information has been changed to secure their privacy.

“A young man named Stan, age 22 sought therapy following a significant breakup. His ex-girlfriend Tiffany was his first love, his first intimate connection, and the first person who made him feel desired. They dated for five years through high school and college. Tiffany is one year older then Stan, which was not a problem when she graduated high school a year before him. She had attended the local college in the same city where they both live and he enrolled the following year. Tiffany graduated college one year before Stan and she received a job offer several states away. She hesitated but could not say no to this opportunity.

Stan was supportive and had no problem being in a long distance relationship until he could graduate and move in with her. Stan had personal insecurities about his value as a person and his image that faded away when he was with Tiffany. The distance for the couple was difficult and led to Stan developing additional uncertainties about the relationship. He needed some supplementary validation to account for the distance from Tiffany.  Unfortunately she was so busy with her new job and living on her own for the first time that she did not have the capacity to fulfill his needs. This was hard for him, but Stan eventually understood this and tried to tone down his expectations for validation. His deep love for tiffany combined with his own insecurities unfortunately pushed her away. She met another man who was compassionate and driven. He appeared confident and the conversation was effortless. This was a breath of fresh air for Tiffany amongst her current tension and feelings of constriction with Stan. Tiffany eventually told Stan about her feelings for the other man and broke up with him.

For Stan this was the ultimate betrayal. He genuinely loved her but this was now combined with feelings of resentment not only towards Tiffany but towards himself. Stan took responsibility for the breakup and blamed himself for having insecurities. Clinically Stan was experiencing symptoms parallel to patients experiencing grief. Deep rooted feelings of sadness, blame, anger, and pain that can lead to depression like symptoms. A Loss of interest in pleasurable activates, feeling down most days, difficulty concentrating, irritability, loss of sleep, and changes in appetite. This loss directly affected his ability to function in school and shortly after the breakup he began failing his classes. Stan also presented with increasing concerns of isolation. Tiffany was a part of his identity and without her he felt lost and confused.

There were several clinical approaches that I used to support Stan but none that helped him quite like gratitude. The intentional and prolonged use of gratitude exercises led to significant and measurable benefits in Stans life. We began our work with gratitude during a session where he was feeling extremely down. I simply asked Stan to tell me something that he was grateful for and I responded to him in the like. So on and so on we ping ponged expressions of gratitude to one another for about 15 minutes. It started out with the big ones; his Family, his car, his health, college, and his pets. After saying the obvious appreciations your mind has to really work to find additional gratitude’s. I think of the brain opening ever door in the mind, looking under every object in order to uncover more things to be thankful for.

After the exercise was over, I asked him why he was thankful for Tiffany. The pts eyes welled up with emotion and he could not deny how thankful he was for her despite the pain. I pointed out to Stan that just because he is angry and hurt by Tiffany, he does not have to suppress the love and gratitude he has for her. Stan was able to name several reasons why he was thankful for Tiffany. He expressed gratitude that she brought him out of his shell and increased his confidence. He was thankful because until Tiffany he did not know that loving someone in this way was possible. Stan added that he was thankful because she made him feel accepted for the first time. This continued for some time, and we spent time reflecting on the significance of the things that he was grateful for.

Moving forward I encouraged Stan to continue using gratitude as a tool in his daily life. I provided him with some of the exercises I will discuss in the next paragraph. After several weeks Stan was still expressing gratitude. Along with other clinical interventions Stan made great progress. He was able to recover his grades in all his college classes and eventually accepted the loss of Tiffany. There were still hard days but overall, Stan expressed that he was happier and more content with the outcome of the relationship. Following up with Stan 6 months after our time together he stated that he had found another girlfriend. Not surprisingly he told me how grateful he was that that his breakup with Tiffany led to him meeting Samantha”.

In closing Gratitude is a powerful tool that you have control over. When used with intention in can lead to some very real and beneficial results. I urge you who is reading to try one if not all of the below exercises to see how an increase in appreciation can impact you and your outlook on life. I guess the only thing left to do is, THANK YOU for reading!

Gratitude exercises:

1.“Gratitude Ping Pong”

This is the exercise used in the story above about Stan. This exercise works best when you do it with someone else however it is also possible to do it solo. Find an environment with minimal distractions to complete this exercise meaning put the phones down, turn off the TV, find somewhere quiet. Sitting on the couch, on a car ride, or while on a walk. Pick someone to start and begin by saying something that you are grateful for. Try to avoid just saying one word, rather intentionally say “I am grateful for _____”. Then the next person say, “I am grateful for_____”. Keep going back and forth. This will be easy to start however will progressively require more mental effort.

2.“Gratitude Journal”

Grab a journal, a loose leaf sheet of paper, and something to write with. Take out your phone and set a timer for 5 minutes. Write out everything that you can think of that makes your feel grateful in the form of a list. Similar to the exercise mentioned above the first 10-15 items will be easy. Then it will become more difficult, but push yourself and keep writing down what you are grateful for. After the 5 minute timer is up start at the top and read out loud everything that you wrote. This is a great exercise that you can do as an individual. Pro tips,  if find the need for some additional gratitude include because you like the way this makes you feel. Try reading the list every morning as soon as you wake up. You can also continue to add to the list and you will soon find out that you will need another page.

2.“Grateful Conversations”.

This is an exercise that will take a little more practice to master. In this exercise when you wake up in the morning make a declaration. “I will express gratitude to every person that I talk to today no matter the type of conversation. This may seem overwhelming but it is 100% possible. At your Starbucks run in the morning say, “Thank you for your hard work to the barista”. At work don’t let one coworker walk away without telling them something that you appreciate about them or the job that they do. When you talk to your friend’s express gratitude. At the end of the day sit back and reflect what it was like to do this. Gratitude is infectious and I have found that after my patients try this some end up making it a permanent tenant in their life. They do this not only because it makes them feel good but also because it positively impacts the people around them.

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