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Gratitude, Re-Defined for Self-Help

Updated: Nov 22, 2022



Jennifer Keluskar Ph.D.


One of my fondest family memories is what could have been another forgettable round of expressing gratitude at Thanksgiving dinner. When we asked our then 2-year-old son, “Colby what are you thankful for?” without hesitation, he exclaimed: “Chicken!”


I find it meaningful to experience gratitude for the simple pleasures my kids express, such as my daughter unabashedly dancing to theme songs of her favorite shows, or my son saying he is thankful for chicken when we are about to eat Thanksgiving turkey and stuffing.

Colby’s statement was profound in its simplicity. As we get older, our wonder of the everyday world fades, and simple pleasures turn into givens. We start saying what we are supposed to say we are grateful for, such as food, shelter, and health. Certainly, there is value and honor in expressing gratitude for all of the above, and to acknowledge that many lack these necessities. The problem is that some of us refer to what we are grateful for in a reflexive manner, which is less effective therapeutically.


For some time, I have wondered about using gratitude to enhance mood and reduce distress, as people who experience more gratitude tend to have better mental health outcomes (e.g. Taylor et al., 2021).


Gratitude has been included in comprehensive therapies for helping people tolerate uncomfortable emotions. An example is Dialectical Behavior Therapy or DBT (Rathus, J. & Miller, A. 2015). When Rathus and Miller discuss helping teens tolerate distress by comparing themselves to those less fortunate than themselves, they mention that this skill “is often misunderstood. People tend to respond that this type of comparison will not work, and often find it invalidating” (p. 132). They suggest that teens use gratitude as a way of reframing their suffering by remembering what they still have. The authors cite an example of bemoaning knee pain, and then realizing that other patients are in wheelchairs and on stretchers and are not able to walk independently. They also suggest comparing themselves to a time when they were doing worse than how they are doing at the present moment. These examples highlight the importance of context when it comes to using gratitude as a strategy for coping with distress.


To better understand how to use gratitude as a device for coping with uncomfortable emotions, I also looked to the scientific literature. It turns out that there have been interesting findings shedding light on the concept of gratitude. For example, one study talks about how a specific kind of gratitude known as “trait gratitude” has an impact on psychological well-being. (Măirean et al., 2018).


Trait gratitude reminds us that gratitude is a personality trait as well as an emotion, and it is a personality trait that can be consciously developed. People with trait gratitude tend to show an appreciation for others and a sense of wonder. There is evidence to suggest that this tendency is related to openness, another personality trait associated with mood benefits (Szcześniak, M. et al, 2020).


Radically Open Dialectical Behavior Therapy (RO-DBT) is a type of therapy that teaches openness through a principle called “Radical Openness,” which encourages open-minded thinking and self-exploration to better understand uncomfortable emotions rather than automatically disregarding, avoiding, or trying to fix negative feelings. One example of an RO-DBT strategy that is meant to enhance openness is a specific kind of self-reflection called “self-enquiry,” in which individuals ask themselves what it is that they can learn from their distress.


In accepting negative emotions, you might use gratitude by breaking down negative associations that have been molded by society or from earlier life experiences, such as the idea that feeling badly means you will lose your dignity. For example, you might have been told not to cry in the past, which led you to fear that sadness would lead to tears.


Instead, one could act contrary to their instincts by thanking their anxiety and sadness because like physical pain, these emotions prompt us to take a break, or ask for help, such as emailing an instructor if you are unsure of what is required by an assignment or off-loading some of your chores to a partner. Emotions are your cue to reflect on what is throwing your emotions off balance, just as physical pain prompts people to consider what might be not going well about their health.


To fully benefit from using gratitude to boost mood, you will likely need to get away from the idea that a problem must be immediately fixed, or that an uncomfortable emotion must be soothed right away. Gratitude is about finding relief in a few deep breaths of fresh air, or a friend’s encouraging words, even if these words do not entirely “fix” the problem at hand. It also helps to believe that we deserve these moments of relief in order to benefit from them.


Gratitude can also be experienced through discovery of the natural world. It is the reason why, after several decades on planet earth, I continue to feel wonder and appreciation for the vibrant colors of autumn and the blossoming of flowers in the spring. Nature is available to us without relentless striving or self-flagellation. It is patient and concrete in its stillness.


Gratitude Exercises

Drawing upon cognitive-behavioral psychological interventions and principles, here are some exercises that involve using gratitude for emotional wellness.


1. Embrace Being Human

When people are distressed, they tend to focus on their individual suffering as meaning they are inferior to others. At such moments, you can use gratitude by acknowledging and giving thanks for being part of human experience, in which imperfection and lack of emotional balance are par for the course. In contrast, rejecting the idea of imperfection leads to feeling isolated from others.


Imagine yourself stepping on board some large vessel filled with all human beings. Remember that collectively we are a diverse bunch, but we share elements of the human experience in common: Inevitable pain and discomfort; imperfection; and having to face change, sometimes unanticipated.


2. Show Gratitude By Understanding Others’ Perspective

When showing appreciation for others, try to focus on shared moments of pleasure, such as laughing with others (shared enjoyment), or enjoying time in nature. Doing so allows us to show appreciation while minimizing comparisons (what they have versus what you have), which are likely to invoke either guilt or resentment depending on whether we are making an upward or downward comparison.


Keep in mind that social comparisons are helpful at times, as they motivate us to self-improve, or to show compassion for others and advocate for those who are less fortunate.

Likely, you will need to be in a somewhat emotionally stable state to genuinely help others, although resources such as The Greater Good website offer a quick, easy, and free means of doing so. By starting with simple shared moments of enjoyment with others, you might find yourself quickly feeling empowered to proactively respond to others’ needs.


You can also show appreciation for others’ sharing of their emotions with you, both good and bad. When others express emotions, they reveal what is important to them, as well as their innermost fears and anxieties.


Understanding others’ emotional worlds will cushion you from the blows of their judgments. When others judge and criticize, these statements are often more reflective of their own emotional difficulties. An example of how this works would be interpreting a child’s misbehavior as a teachable moment for both parent and child rather than responding to it as a sign of poor parenting.


3. Talk Yourself Down from Extreme Thinking

You can prime yourself for a sense of appreciation by talking yourself out of extreme thoughts about your circumstances. Signs that you are engaging in extreme thinking are the use of "always” and “never” statements like “I always make my kids unhappy” or “It never works out with my partner.” Ironically, you might need to convince yourself that what you are upset about is not so important in order to discover an appreciation for more positive perceptions.


“Should” and “must” statements also represent potential obstacles to positive thinking and gratitude. For example, thinking, “I would like to cook dinner” is more likely to engender positive thoughts and gratitude than is “I should be cooking dinner right now.”


4. Appreciate the Simple Things

Focusing on simple moments that bring joy or contentment, such as smells that bring back positive memories, can help you reframe these experiences as gifts rather than givens. Doing so enhances the meaning of ordinary moments. For me, it is the first sip of coffee in the morning.


While building up a mental repository of simple pleasures can be a fun and easy exercise, the more challenging piece is how these moments can help mood at times of distress. For instance, let’s say you are running late for work and, in your haste, you accidentally drop and break a glass in your kitchen. Will conjuring the thought of the first sip of coffee you took an hour ago help ease the anxiety you are experiencing at such a moment?


The answer is both “yes” and “no.”


While most people will have to use additional coping strategies (such as talking themselves down – see number 3 above – and problem solving), showing appreciation for simple pleasures can be part of what helps in the following ways:


· How we react to situations is influenced by our “baseline mood,” or how we are feeling prior to triggering situations. Think about the last time you had one of those days when everything seemed to be going wrong. You might have found yourself thinking that you would not be able to stand another single thing going awry, even a little spill in the kitchen. Therefore, maintaining a positive baseline will help buffer the impact of mood insults that come your way. Mental health professionals will often tell their clients to start practicing coping skills when they are feeling good in order to build up the skill before they need to use it when they are feeling badly. In a similar vein, showing appreciation for simple pleasures is a way of building up the “gratitude muscle” in your mind.

· Another way focusing on simple pleasures helps when you are in distress is simply that it serves as a distraction. Furthermore, commonplace simple pleasures, such as chewing and eating food, giving yourself a hug, and listening to music, actually elicit a calming response in the body (Lynch, 2018).


5. Engaging in your Preferred form of Creative Self-Expression – There are various forms of therapy that have merged with the creative arts, such as art and music therapy. Journaling, including using “gratitude journals,” in which you focus on writing about the positive things in your life, are another popular way of expressing thoughts and feelings.


Personal accounts that I have come across, as well as clinical experience, indicate that creative self-expression can be therapeutic if you have a positive attitude towards the activity. One research study on gratitude interventions involving journaling showed that participants' attitude towards the task (such as how socially acceptable they thought it was and the extent to which they believed it would be effective) influenced how helpful this strategy ultimately turned out to be (Kaczmarek et al., 2015).



As an aside, this year, Colby, at the age of 4-years-old, has continued to make us laugh by sharing what he is thankful for this year: “Candles.”


References

Kaczmarek, L.D, Kashdan, T.B., Drążkowski, D. Enko, J., Kosakowski, M., Szäefer, Bujacz, A.,

(2015). Why do people prefer gratitude journaling over gratitude letters? The

influence of individual differences in motivation and personality on web-based

interventions. Personality and Individual Differences, 75, 1-6.


Lynch, T. (2018). Radically Open Dialectical Behavior Therapy: Theory and Practice

for Treating Disorders of Overcontrol. New Harbinger Publications.

Măirean, C., Turliuc, M.N., Arghire, D. (2018). The relationship between trait gratitude and

psychological well being in university students: The mediating role of affective state and

the moderating role of state gratitude. Journal of Gratitude Studies.

https://doi.org/10.1007/s10902-018-9998-7.


Rathus, J.H & Miller, A.L. (2015). DBT Skills Manual for Adolescents. Guilford.


Szcześniak, M., Rodzeń, W., Malinowska, A., & Kroplewski, Z., 2020. Big five personality

traits and gratitude: The role of emotional intelligence. Psychology Research

and Behavior Management. doi: 10.2147/PRBM.S268643


Taylor, Z.E., Bailey, K., Herrera, F., Nair, N., & Adams, A. (2021). Strengths of the heart:

stressors, gratitude, and mental health in single mothers during the COVID-19

pandemic. Journal of Family Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1037/fam0000928.


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