By MICHAEL SHAPIRO, PhD
A casual look at the blog section of our SR-AHEC website recently led me to realize that I haven’t made a “Piece of Mind” contribution in almost two years! Ironically, the last one--written towards the end of the first year of the global COVID pandemic--was on “resilience.” Although I’ve been neglectful of my blog, I’m going to take it as a testimony to our collective resilience that despite the tumult of the intervening two years, I’m still here writing, you’re still here reading, and the world is still roughly round in shape and has not yet gone completely off the rails (although the day is young).
Which brings me to a topic that is completely entwined with resilience: gratitude. Yes, it is likely that tragedy has touched you, your family, and your loved ones in some way or at some point since COVID made its debut in late 2019. In fact, “touched” may be way too delicate a word…you may have been assailed, assaulted, or sucker punched. Yet, once again, here we are. If you’ve managed to survive, regardless of your circumstances, you can ind something for which you can be grateful.
Gratitude is defined as “…the quality of being thankful; readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness.” It’s not an emotional reaction. It’s not personality characteristic. It’s not a “gift” or ability that is given to some but not to others. It’s a decision: one that has to be made every day. In fact, it’s the first decision you should make every day: to be grateful for waking up alive (not quite sure how you’d wake up dead, but you get the idea); for that first cup of coffee (which is unavailable to many people); and for someone—somewhere—who loves you, be it a spouse, family member, or friend.
According to a 2012 study published in Personality and Individual Differences, gratitude actually improves physical health. Grateful people exercise more regularly and have fewer aches and pains. They actually sleep better and are more resilient in the face of stress and tragedy. There are psychological benefits as well, including less depression, less aggressive behavior, and improved self-esteem in those who make it a point to take time during the day to have grateful thoughts. Gratitude may even be protective against post-traumatic stress: a 2006 study published in Behavior Research and Therapy found that Vietnam War veterans with higher levels of gratitude experienced lower rates of PTSD.
At this point, you might argue that the relationship between gratitude and overall wellbeing is a classic chicken or egg phenomenon: does gratitude make people healthy, or are healthy people more grateful because they’re not sick or depressed? The answer is…who cares? Depending on your circumstances, it may take some work to be grateful, but gratitude is never bad, it won’t kill you, and your health insurance company will never argue with you about having it.
So, let’s be real (as a psychologist, I’m nothing if not realistic). I totally understand that some people’s circumstances are so relentlessly depressing that they find it difficult to do anything but ruminate about the unfairness of life (often justifiably) or seethe with anger about how they can never catch a break. In such circumstances, platitudes like “Well, at least you’re alive,” or “It could be worse” or “There are other people who are less well-off than you are” may feel unhelpful at best, and downright insulting at worst. Gratitude can’t just be made to “appear” at the request or insistence of others. Instead, like a plant that grows slowly, it has to be cultivated, and it takes some time and effort.
Actually, there are many simple things that you can do to plant the seed and start the process of being more grateful. Starting the day by simply writing down three things (or people) that you’re grateful for will set the emotional tone for the rest of the day. Then, if there is a person on that list who is readily available and accessible, take a moment to express that gratitude to that person, be it by text, email, or carrier pigeon. Even though some of us find it difficult to express “mushy” emotions in this way, research suggests that doing so actually gives us a jolt of serotonin and dopamine, which are the neurochemicals that work in the “pleasure and reward” system of the brain. Later, just before you go to bed, think about the events of the day and reflect on the ones that you can be grateful for (even if it’s as simple as, “I sure am glad that I didn’t run off the road when that guy cut me off in traffic”). After all, even if you perceive your life as miserable and unyielding, no one’s day can possibly be 100% bad. There must be at least one thing for which you can be thankful. In doing so, you will “pre-program” yourself to have a more positive attitude tomorrow.
However, unlike these simple “starter” steps, my last suggestion may seem counter-intuitive or completely illogical. Rather than trying to forget a stressful event from your immediate or distant past, I urge you to think about it…not by just re-living the moment in your mind or stewing in resentment, which is just painful and unproductive. Instead, as you reflect on a certain experience, you’ll remember that, at least at the time, you felt that this was the worst thing that had ever happened to you, and you didn’t think you could possibly endure. Yet somehow, you survived. Going through that struggle made you a better or stronger person in some way. Changing your attitude about a terrible event in this way is known as “re-framing.” In his book, Gratitude Works!, Robert Emmons reminds us to re-frame tragic experiences by asking ourselves the following questions:
While dwelling meaninglessly on a tragic experience can be harmful, using that event to prove to yourself that you are resilient can be liberating and strengthening. Then, you can steep yourself in gratitude for the lessons it taught you and the people who helped you get through it.
In a world full of tragedy in which people seem determined to marinate themselves in anger and indignation, it may be difficult to feel grateful. But, once again, “feeling” is just that: an emotional reaction. Gratitude is a decision, and a mindset that needs to be cultivated. Once gratitude becomes a habit, you’ll realize that there were many things to be grateful for all along. Personally, I’m grateful that you took the time to read this, and I hope that the events of today will give you plenty of opportunities to be thankful.