How to Dredge Up Some Gratitude After Life Slams You

These 6 tips can help you feel better when the last thing you are is grateful.

Posted Feb 09, 2018

Kevin Rohr/Freeimages
Source: Kevin Rohr/Freeimages

I was recently sent a review copy of a gratitude journal. It so happened that my husband of 34 years had died of cancer a couple of months before, and I was miserable.

I had never made a daily practice of gratitude, though I had been mostly content and grateful for the life I had. The empty journal made me wonder if now was the right time for me to delve into my sad self to find small good things for which to be grateful.

WRITING HELPS

it is possible, up to a point, for people to restructure their thinking. That is, by thinking about how you think, you may be able to experience negative events in your life in a less disabling way.

Game to try anything that would help diminish my pain and grief, I started keeping this gratitude journal. Not every day, but when I was able to (you fill in the date yourself, so no pressure). This is not the only kind of gratitude journal on the market, yet this one has a few nice plusses. It's called Trybal Gratitude Journal: Manifesting the life you are meant to live (the name incorporates the word "try" and the "gratitude Tryb" the designer hopes to create).  

Each page offers the same several motivating cues, including what you're grateful for this day, your intention for the day in a single word and the supporting behaviors you have in mind, and a wrap-up in which you give yourself a high-five, and a so-called "magical moment." Personally, I cross off the word "magical," and write anything that happened to surprise or please me. There are also margins and additional doodling space. It's a chatty journal meant to put the user at ease.

Perhaps the best way to show how such a journal can be used is to offer a few examples:

  • A high-five to myself: I accepted an unexpected invitation to tea when a big part of me just wanted to go home.
  • Grateful for the fact that the "holiday season" isn't normally that special to me, thus making these days less painful than they are for many who have experienced loss.
  • Grateful that I am capable of reminding myself these feelings of loss and sorrow are normal and are less incapacitating as time passes.
  • Grateful that I was able to laugh out loud twice during the Bill Maher show. I never laugh out loud!

THOU SHALT LEARN GRATITUDE

Another new book came to my attention recently, seemingly out of the blue, entitled A Better Ten Commandments: A Guide to Living Life With and On Purpose by James Miller. It's not unusual for non-believers to imagine a better set of rules to live by then the commandments of the Bible, as that ancient list includes several that are profoundly outdated and irrelevant today. Miller's suggested ten are well- thought-out, intelligent, and would be life- and world-changing if widely adopted.

The sixth of Miller's new commandments is Be grateful.

Miller cites studies showing that when you focus on the positive in your life, you feel better, and that those who react to the world with a negative attitude are less likely to have experiences they deem positive. That makes sense.

It's natural to have a negativity bias (more natural for some of us than others!) which serves to protect us from harm; being aware of all the bad stuff that could happen might save your life. However, such a bias can be overdone to the detriment of a contented life. Miller refers to scientific studies demonstrating that grateful people are less depressed, healthier, and more resistant to trauma, as well as having better relationships and a whole slew of other benefits.

6 STRATEGIES

Consider the value to you of seeking some good in every day, no matter how little it may seem, at that moment, to balance out the dark events with which you're struggling.

Here are a few ways to make gratitude a habit:

Choose a daily time to think back over the day and come up with at least one happening worth a bit of gratitude. Use a journal, a notebook, a smartphone, computer file, or even a Facebook group that suits you.

Don't like writing? Talk. Perhaps you and a friend, preferably one who "gets" you and your struggles, could touch base with your respective thoughts on gratitude daily or once a week.

Help your kids learn to express gratitude by modeling such behavior. Children's gratitude is often based on something fun they did that day. Ask a few relevant questions to get them started. Then ask the youngest to go first, suggests Liz Barnett, Ph.D., a Motivational Interviewing trainer and consultant. Otherwise it's too easy for the younger child to copy the older one. Teach them that there are no wrong reasons to feel grateful.

Say thank you frequently. If you're fortunate to have friends or family or strangers who are helpful in lifting your burden in any way at all, let them know. And let yourself know that you have been given a gift.

Seek new ways to feel appreciation. If you have been a nature lover or are especially visual, pay fresh attention to sunsets, a blooming flower, a puddle reflecting sunlight. Include one or more such images in your gratitude journal (written or sketched).

Put aside some of your defensive pessimism. For some people, trying too hard to see only the positive can lead to more stress. While you may feel it is rational to expect less and to be wary of all the negative things that might happen—and often do happen—such defensive pessimism tends to limit your awareness of the positive. Try turning at least some of your native pessimism into gratitude: there are probably some calamities you missed, or perhaps you were able to cope better than some with whatever losses have befallen you.

NOTE: I found Catherine Price's blog post "Stumbling Toward Gratitude" of help in composing this post.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Susan K. Perry, author of Kylie's Heel