Developing Gratitude Amidst Life’s Struggle

Research suggests gratitude can improve emotional well-being.

Posted Dec 13, 2019

Carol Silver & 6689062 Pixabay
Source: Carol Silver & 6689062 Pixabay

Most of us are emotionally struggling with something at any given moment. Whether it be difficult financial realities, relationship discord, parenting challenges, physical illness, self-doubt, addiction, or concerns for the environment, it is easy to find emotionally-charged issues to occupy our minds. 

The truth is that life can be very hard. Bad things happen to good people on a daily basis. Painful experiences that we have very little control over sometimes smack us in the face. And choosing to live a conscious, honest life requires us to take an un-edited look at ourselves and make choices with the information that we learn. 

When faced with life’s challenging realities, it can be difficult to see the positive aspects of our lives. Yet one of the best ways to cope with the struggles that we are bound to grapple with is to develop a spirit of gratitude and recognize that there is a gift in every experience. There can be learning in the struggle. There can be growth through pain. And sometimes, we even come out of an objectively challenging reality with tremendous appreciation because the experience made us a better version of ourselves. 

In mainstream language, gratitude is generally defined as noticing and appreciating positive aspects of life. It includes the ability to be empathic and to take pleasure in the “little things” in life. Gratitude can occur as a state, which is focusing on something that is good about the present moment; and, as a trait, which is a general tendency to appreciate positives aspects of life.

Jans-Beken and colleagues (2019) recently reviewed quantitative, longitudinal, and intervention-based research examining gratitude as a predictor of health-related outcomes. With a final sample of 64 studies meeting inclusion criteria, the authors concluded that gratitude is positively associated with emotional well-being and can facilitate increased social connection. In addition, actively developing gratitude using specific techniques and interventions can help us cope with negative life experiences and realities. 

So, how can you increase gratitude in your life? Three effective techniques highlighted in the Jans-Beken et al. (2019) review are:

  1. Journaling about what you most appreciate in your life. This can be done on a daily basis for as little as 5 minutes a day or as a one-time exercise.
  2. Writing a gratitude letter to someone describing what they mean or meant to you. This can be mailed or done solely as an exercise for you to identify and express your feelings of appreciation. 
  3. Writing down three good things that happened you to today or this week. This is also known as the Three Good Things exercise (see Seligman, Steen, Park, & Peterson, 2005).

The Naked Truth is This: I believe choosing to be as honest with yourself as possible is key to creating the most meaningful life—even when the truth hurts. That said, focusing our attention and energy on existing life challenges can lead us to feel sad, anxious, and depressed. Actively developing an appreciation for the good things about your life can help you cope. Journaling, writing a gratitude letter, and listing at least three good things that happened to you today are a great way to start “honestly” appreciating the good in your life—especially when facing difficult life realities. 

Copyright Cortney S. Warren, Ph.D., ABPP

References

Jans-Beken, L., Jacobs, N., Janssens, M., Peeters, S., Reijnders, J., Lechner, L., & Kataster, J. (2019). Gratitude and health: An updated review. The Journal of Positive Psychology, DOI: 10.1080/17439760.2019.1651888.

Seligman, M., Steen, T. A., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist. DOI: 10.1037/0003-066X.60.5.410.