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Why Is Being Thankful So Difficult For Some People?

An attitude of gratitude: It's more than a simple saying.

Thanksgiving is all about being grateful. That is simple for some people and almost impossible for others. Feeling appreciative is a sign of a healthy mindset. It reflects the ability to acknowledge the positive even if there is much that is negative. There are people who “live on the sunny side of the street.” Being optimistic, happy, and grateful comes naturally to them.

But there are those who dwell in negative territory. It’s said that the “city of happiness is in the state of mind.” Many mental health experts and life coaches recommend that their clients write daily in a gratitude journal and list all for which they are thankful. The practice is meant to exercise the muscle of gratitude to help change perspective and channel the mind in a more positive direction.

Being able to appreciate—or not appreciate—is a telltale sign

Being grateful, however, is just about impossible for someone who is depressed. An “attitude of gratitude” may sound like a Pollyana-ish saying but it is actually a significant sign. Its presence reveals to a clinician that the individual they are treating, while grappling with life challenges, is able to see beyond those and appreciate the blessings in the larger context of their life. The absence of gratitude generally points to a problem that must be addressed—whether with psychotherapy, psychopharmacology, mind-body practices, or a combination of the above.

People don’t come into therapy because they’re grateful. They seek help when they feel overwhelmed by problems and have a litany of challenges in their relationships, work life, financial situation, health, or some other serious matter. When a patient begins to express appreciation in therapy—whether about the treatment or a person in their lives or an occurrence—it’s usually a turning point, a signpost that treatment is beginning to work. Yes, there are still obstacles to overcome but being able to recognize a glimmer of good in their lives reflects a healthier, more positive perspective.

Not everyone who has trouble feeling appreciative suffers from major depression. They may have a condition called persistent depressive disorder (also called dysthymia). This is a mild depressive condition. People who struggle with it are often thought of as seeing the glass half-empty. They seem to always be a little sour or have a chip on their shoulder. The good news is that psychopharmacologic medication today can alleviate such symptoms, often without any side effects. Suddenly a person can see the good in their life, the potential for things to get better.

The gift of recognizing good in our lives

Donald Giannatti/Unsplash
Source: Donald Giannatti/Unsplash

Famous psychoanalyst Melanie Klein wrote about envy and gratitude, the latter being a central element of depression that eats away at the capacity for gratitude. It leaves us with deep concerns about what we don’t have, overwhelming the sense of what we do have. This often has roots that go far back in our lives, sometimes to childhood and family relationships, to be explored in psychotherapy. One form of meditation is called lovingkindness, which focuses on directing loving thoughts toward self and others and can be a powerful antidote to envy and help rejuvenate a sense of gratitude.

During this holiday season, if you or a loved one has difficulty feeling grateful for some small blessing in your life, consider speaking to a mental health professional. An “attitude of gratitude” is more than a simple saying. It highlights good mental health.

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