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10 Things You Can Be Thankful For No Matter What's Going On

Finding reasons to be grateful isn't always easy.

Thanksgiving is a time to give thanks for all of the wonderful things in your life. But what if those things are hard to find? What if it's painful to hear other people go on about their loving spouse, their supportive family, and their excellent health, because it reminds you of what you lack?

Research suggests that regularly practicing gratitude is one of the best ways to increase happiness. But the people who can benefit most from gratitude may find it most difficult. When everything is going wrong, it can be hard to see the good in your life.

Below is a list of ten things you can be thankful for even when it feels like there is nothing to be thankful for.

1. Satisfying your basic needs. Every time you have access to clean water when you're thirsty, food when you're hungry, a bed when you're tired, or heat when you're cold, you have something to be thankful for. People who lack consistent access to basic necessities know this all too well, but for the rest of us it can be easy to forget just how lucky we are.

2. Your senses. The senses of touch, smell, taste, sight, and hearing—along with a number of other senses—are what allow us to experience the world, but their critical importance is often invisible to us. Learning more about how the senses work--and about the remarkable ways that people are able to compensate when they don't work—can increase your appreciation. There are many online resources for learning about sensation and perception, but I especially recommend reading books by neurologist Oliver Sacks, such as The Mind's Eye, Seeing Voices, and Musicophilia.

3. The kindness of strangers. We tend to pay more attention to negative information than to positive information, a pattern that psychologists believe evolved because negative information can represent a threat to survival. A rude comment sticks with us, whereas a smile in passing may not even register. Making a conscious effort to notice the kindness that others' show us can help to attenuate the negativity bias and give us more reasons to be thankful.

4. Your own capacity for kindness. It can be hard to feel gratitude for the people in your life at times when you feel hurt, betrayed, or abandoned by them. People can be cruel, and often there is little we can do about it. But we can control our own behavior. We can choose to treat others with kindness, to be the person who brightens someone else's day or eases their pain. This capacity for kindness is a valuable gift for others, but also for ourselves—research shows that giving compassion and support to others can increase our own happiness too.

5. The ability to learn. There is a whole world of fascinating information out there, and a lot of it is free and available right at our fingertips as long as we have an internet connection or a library card. On Psychology Today alone you can learn from thousands of experts on topics ranging from addiction and aging to relationships and health.

6. The strength to get through hard times. Have you ever been surprised to find that you were able to get through something really tough, even though you were convinced initially that it was more than you could bear? Trite as it may sound, the truth is that we are often stronger than we think, and it's not until we're really challenged that our true strength becomes apparent. Research on immune neglect (a reference to our psychological immune system) suggests that we tend to underestimate our ability to cope with negative events—it's not that we breeze through trying times, but we often fare better than we expect we will.

7. Modern technology. Consider how much of the technology that is available today was not available for most of human history: cell phones, computers, TVs, cars, highways, airplanes, GPS, plumbing systems, electricity, life-saving medical treatments. These technologies enhance quality of life, make the planet more interconnected, and, of course, provide endless sources of entertainment (one thing that is definitely on my list of things to be thankful for this year: Netflix).

8. Good memories. When we think about what we're thankful for, we may forget about things we've experienced in the past, or loved ones we've lost, since we don't really "have" them anymore. But we do still have them in the form of memories. It was once believed that nostalgia was a pathological condition, but research suggests that spending time reflecting back on happy memories can increase happiness and reduce loneliness.

9. Your birth. Have you ever stopped to think about how improbable your own birth was? How was it that out of all the possible egg and sperm combinations, you came to be? Right now it may seem like a given that you're here, but it wasn't always that way. For more on this topic see this post, and this visual demonstration. Research suggests that thinking counterfactually about your own birth--that is, imagining all of the possible scenarios where it would not have taken place—can increase your sense of meaning in life, and your gratitude.

10. This moment. Even if the future is uncertain, the fact that you are alive at this moment, healthy enough to read this post, is something to be thankful for.

Copyright Juliana Breines, Ph.D.

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