The attitude of gratitude – yes, yes, we’ve all heard how it’s a good thing. But it’s not always easy to feel, especially if you are in the midst of a depression. And recently, I’ve been feeling disconnected, uninspired, and well, downright ornery. And gratitude? Well, that hasn’t been in the picture. But as messages of Thanksgiving assault me, maybe exploring thankfulness might improve my situation. Enlightened self-interest, call it.
To be honest, even when I’m not depressed, I have a hard time with gratitude. I don’t like to admit it, but I do. It doesn’t come naturally or easily. Oh yeah, I can quickly rattle off a list things and people I’m grateful for. You know do the ‘Oprah Winfrey’ thing. Apparently every night she lists 5 things she’s grateful for in a journal. By the way, if I was Oprah, I’d be grateful too. What I mean though, is really feeling the glow of gratefulness.
Those of us living a middle class life, with lots of love for our kids but little time to be with them, with more ‘to dos’ than energy and those of us acutely sensitive to the world’s atrocities and injustices, well I think it makes perfect sense why it’s tough to feel grateful. And if we’re in the midst of a nasty bout of depression, or if mental illness has stripped much of our life away, or we’re living below the poverty line (like I was for many years), it can be more difficult to access and that’s even more understandable. Which is why to feel gratitude, I have to practice it. Unless I purposefully count my blessings my mind (particularly when in a sticky inky depressive phase or simply when things aren’t going my way) will focus on only the negative.
Now, I know the things I’m grateful for. I know it’s good I have food, housing, clothes, warmth, friends, to name a few. But recently I realized I know my blessings, but don’t always feel blessed. I’ve got the sneaking suspicion real gratitude, what I call ‘affective gratitude’ (affect as in emotion) goes deeper than intellectualizing and moves into a physical experience of gratitude. Which isn’t always easy – to actually experience appreciation; that is, unless I work at it, focus on it and make a point of diving deep.
So that’s what I’ve been doing: digging, snuffling, poking around this thing called gratitude and in the process I am discovering the experience of gratefulness. First I did what most people do when they don’t know about something. I looked on the internet. Guess what? There is scientific research on gratitude. Dr. Robert Emmons is the preeminent scientific expert on all things grateful. Seriously – he’s like a gratitude scientist. That’s got to be an oxymoron. But no, he empirically studies gratitude: its benefits, power, how it’s cultivated . To watch some of fascinating talks click here.
After wading through internet information, I started asking myself what does gratitude mean to me? What does it even feel like for me? Do I know how to recognize it?
If you’re struggling with depression, gratitude is something you likely haven’t been feeling much. I’ve been feeling quite opposite: resentment, envy, some of those lovely visitors. It’s like the switch to grateful emotions has been turned off and the power to said switch has been hijacked. But this is good news. Really. The switch and the source of electricity (the experience of gratitude) are still there. It just means it hasn’t been accessed for awhile, not that it can’t be. This meant, allowing myself not to know what gratitude means, to have no idea what it even feels like and to go from there. The exercise is to explore, not necessarily to find. I give myself 100% permission to be completely inept at counting my blessings. And off I go....
How to practice gratitude when you feel like crap:
1) Close your eyes. You probably already got this but don’t do this while you’re driving. Sit (or stand) somewhere when you have time on your own. It can be in your home, or while waiting for the bus even (I don't recommend the grocery line, it can a bit unnerving for the cashier and other shoppers).
2) Take a deep breath in (and out in case you’re wondering).
3) Say or visualize the word ‘gratitude’ in your mind.
4) Focus on your body – watch, is there tension when you focus on that word?
5) Breathe and relax a little deeper.
6) Mentally review things, occurrences, people, places that you have experienced in the last 24 hours, the last week or two, or even the course of your life. Ask yourself what or who do you feel gratitude for? This is the tricky and sneaky part: let your mind review items you ‘think’ you are grateful for and then as you see the item in detail, see if that translates into inklings of gladness or some small bubble of positive emotions.
Example: My affective gratitude point is this canvas my husband recently painted for me. A block of pure orange that now hangs in my office. When I think about it, I feel thankful he painted it for me. I feel a little burble of joy when I see it in my mind’s eye. I feel a goodness about it and my husband. However, I also feel vulnerable. Vulnerability comes with offering thanks. I recognize I am cared for by him, which underscores my interdependence with him. I feel this fragility with him and with others in my life, if I am courageous enough to go there. Vulnerability is one reason why feeling gratitude can be scary and a reason why we (okay I) avoid it. Envy, jealousy, bitterness – way easier. But you can hold both gratitude and envy at the same time. So I am trying out gratefulness a bit more often.
7) If you can’t seem to put your finger on a sense of appreciation, keep going. Keep exploring. Continue gently reviewing. Notice any resistance in your body, take a breath, then return to nudging out appreciation possibilities. Start with things that you like, that even might seem trivial – trust me they’re not. Could be as simple as a piece of music you heard. Even in the midst of dark depression, push yourself, just a little, to lean into the places you think you might feel appreciation. When I’m in the thick of a depression, when all things seem forever bleak, it’s the feel of my duvet against my skin that I’m grateful for. One, because I’m spending more time in bed and two, if I give thanks to a comforter, it won’t ask for anything in return. It’s a duvet after all. It’s doing what duvets do best, keeping me warm.
8) When you do hit upon something that gives you a sense of gratitude, notice what it is like: the emotion, sensations, the changes in your body. Do you relax a bit, or feel a sense of comfort? Do you notice your stream of negative thoughts stop for a split second? Be with that, for as long as you like or as long as you can tolerate.
9) Take a breath, wiggle your toes (to get your bearings) and open your eyes. And give yourself a pat on the back. You just went into unknown territory - alone.
I’ve been repeating this either in the morning or as I tuck in to go to sleep. Because even when it comes to something as ‘spiritual’ as gratitude, I need to make it concrete too. I aim to find 5 things I’m grateful for. I started with 1, then 2, now 5 - give or take. Oprah can’t be all bad, right?
But I have to practice gratitude. Like any other skill, it takes practice and a bit of effort to develop it. So that’s what I’ve been doing. And I’ve discovered, surprise of all surprises, when I focus (for 5 minutes even) on finding the feel of grateful (‘affective' gratitude) for one person, or thing or happenstance, my world shifts, just a tiny bit and I feel better. And don’t we all want to feel just a little bit better?
I invite you to try this. See what happens. Email me to let me know (firstname.lastname@example.org or make a comment below). I need to hear other people’s experiences, or non-experiences as the case may be with gratitude. Thanks. No really. I mean that. Really.