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Gratitude Can Lift You Up, Even When You’re Down

Tips for overcoming the discouragement or overwhelm that’s holding you back.

Key points

  • Gratitude encompasses many practices, including appreciation, graciousness, optimism, recognizing the positive, and looking for silver linings.
  • Feeling pessimistic or overwhelmed indicates a negative focus, which can bring a person further down.
  • Countering habits of negative thinking requires addressing any roadblocks, such as one's history, challenges, and beliefs about optimism.

Practicing gratitude encompasses many positive behaviors, including:

  • Feeling appreciation for what you have
  • Recognizing the positive aspects of your life
  • Being gracious with people, such as thanking someone for a compliment or kindness
  • Counting your blessings, perhaps in prayer
  • Focusing on the good in the world
  • Looking for the silver lining
  • Journaling about what has brought you joy in the past or present
  • Expressing optimism for the future
  • Turning your attention toward what’s going well in your life, rather than only focusing on the not-so-good

Research shows that people who practice gratitude are more likely to feel positive emotions, enjoy good experiences, improve health, boost resilience, and cultivate good relationships with others. In other words, practicing gratitude can bring you more joy, satisfaction, and connection, for which you can feel even more grateful. Gratitude is the gift that keeps on giving.

To see the value of this practice, first imagine focusing on the negative, such as ruminating on the string of injuries, illnesses, losses, or injustices you’ve suffered. Imagine that your car keeps breaking down, your finances are uncertain, that neighbor is so awful, your boss is unreasonable, or your spouse is annoying you. Imagine telling yourself stories about how the world is out to get you or how unlucky you are in life, love, health, or money. Just reading this paragraph may trigger some feelings of sadness, anxiety, and hopelessness.

Now imagine turning your focus toward the positive—even if you’ve suffered a series of accidents, losses, poor health, or experienced numerous setbacks, unfair disadvantages, or less-than-stellar relationships. Yes, those situations are difficult to manage. But what if you could boost your ability to overcome challenges by focusing on even the tiniest positives? Can you think about the kindness or friendship of one particular person and feel gratitude for that? What if you look for a silver lining? Perhaps you wouldn’t have gotten a certain opportunity or met a certain someone if you hadn’t suffered that tragic loss. Perhaps you’ve learned how to take better care of your body and can reap the rewards of better health as a result. Or you finally found a competent mechanic or a better job. What if you kept tabs on what’s going well for you in life, in spite of your challenges?

Research shows that training your brain to focus on the positive can increase your resilience—your ability to meet challenges—by reducing depression, anxiety, and anger, boosting a sense of well-being, and reducing signs of stress in the body. Indeed, whenever your brain is soothed by gratitude, it can’t be occupied by misery.

Overcoming Roadblocks to Gratitude

If this exercise seems daunting or you feel skeptical, you may suffer from some degree of depression, which can put you in a vicious cycle of negative thoughts, which breed negative feelings, which breed negative thoughts, and on and on. Or perhaps you are overwhelmed by grief, which often obscures gratitude.

Gratitude also requires some degree of optimism, which people can resist due to a variety of beliefs. Some believe optimism is unrealistic or unwarranted. Or that it’s a sure sign of carelessness or naiveté about how the world works. Or it’s an excuse to ignore problems. Others believe that if they aren’t constantly scanning for threats and focusing on problems, they won’t be able to stay safe or keep out of trouble or make the world a better place. Other people feel guilty or uncomfortable with optimism, believing that a focus on suffering is a way to be selfless, align with one’s community, or work for social change.

People can learn these negative beliefs and habits from enduring a difficult childhood, systemic inequities, traumatic events, or a strict religious or ideological upbringing. Perhaps the habit of scanning for threats and focusing on problems has helped you survive. If this rings a bell for you, you may benefit from trauma-focused treatment, such as EMDR-- and as impossible as this may sound, you may especially benefit from adopting practices of gratitude. A gratitude mindset can free you to cultivate safe situations and train your focus not on problems, but on solutions.

And remember, you can start with baby steps. This week, try saying thank you to someone. Thank a clerk, a colleague, or a driver. Smile at a stranger. Pet an animal. Get outdoors and thank Mother Nature or your higher power for the beauty of the natural world. Try being gracious—appreciating the good neighbors or telling someone what you like about them. Then notice what comes back to you. Just as being negative invites negative responses, being positive invites positive responses, which can bring more positivity into your life.

Yes, many aspects of your life may still be difficult or rife with inequity, and you have every right to feel pessimistic about some stuff. But if you can also practice gratitude for even the tiniest comfort, joy, or peace, you will find small moments of contentment and be better able to rest, rejuvenate, and tackle what’s next. Particularly if you’re struggling with grief, guilt, or feeling undeserving, you can also think of it this way: Be the positive force you want to see in the world.

You might also try this life hack: If ruminating on the negative is keeping you up at night, take several deep, slow breaths, in and out, and then turn your focus toward what you are grateful for. Comforting yourself with gratitude can help you drift into sleep.

As time passes, practices of gratitude can become habits. The more gratitude you practice, the more happy and optimistic you can become. In this way, your thoughts create your reality. Focus solely on the negative, and you get to live in a world full of unhappiness. Focus at least some of your attention on the positive, and you get to live in a world that also contains happiness.

More from Deborah L. Davis Ph.D.
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