The election is over and a lot of people are angry. If you’re paying attention, it’s not hard to see why. In the past couple of weeks, I’ve witnessed more blatant racial slurs, hate speech, and insensitivity than I have in years, and it probably shouldn’t be surprising, but it is. We have a lot of work to do. Honestly, gratitude has been the last thing on my mind. I do think it’s crucial right now (and I’ll explain why), but I also think most people get it wrong.
A lot of people will tell you to be grateful because someone else has it worse. You’ve heard that, right?
“Just be grateful you’re not (insert terrible thing here).”
Years ago, I wrote about the gender pay gap, for example, and a reader suggested I stop “complaining” and just be grateful I haven’t experienced the level of sexual harassment she’s experienced. I agree: it’s occasionally important to remember you probably have it better than someone else. However, that take on gratitude solves nothing.
It’s an entirely misguided approach. It assumes that, by wanting something better, you’re inherently ungrateful, as if goals and gratitude are mutually exclusive. It also distracts from the issue or problem at hand. Instead of taking action, you’re guilted into remaining complacent.
Finally, this approach to gratitude isn’t gratitude at all. We shouldn’t be grateful out of guilt or shame for wanting more wealth, success, or justice. We should be grateful because gratitude empowers us and can supercharge our efforts.
And there’s research to back that up.
Gratitude Makes You More Resilient
A study in the Journal of Social Psychology found that positive emotions, including gratitude, can actually help people bounce back from trauma. Specifically, the study looked at how subjects coped with the terrorist attacks on September 11th, 2001. Researchers wrote:
“Mediational analyses showed that positive emotions experienced in the wake of the attacks— gratitude, interest, love, and so forth—fully accounted for the relations between (a) precrisis resilience and later development of depressive symptoms and (b) precrisis resilience and postcrisis growth in psychological resources. Findings suggest that positive emotions in the aftermath of crises buffer resilient people against depression and fuel thriving, consistent with the broaden-and-build theory.”
It seems pretty messed up to tell people to think positive! after something terrible has happened. The point is not about being optimistic for the sake optimism, though. It’s about using optimism to help you survive.
We all have our tragedies. During one of the lowest points in my life, I felt aimless and hopeless. My grades plummeted. I lost friends. Aside from therapy, the only productive way I could find to cope was embracing gratitude. It was simply a defense mechanism. I was emotionally drowning and I wanted to find a reason to be happy again, so I actively searched for reasons, even if it was just a bag of fries or a conversation with a stranger. Surprisingly, it helped. Like the study’s subjects, after a while of practicing gratitude (sort of on accident), I started to feel more resilient. I still felt down, but not as down, and that gave me the energy to keep moving forward.
Gratitude Helps You Regain Control
Gratitude can help with resilience, and it can also help you feel powerful. For example, a few years ago, when I was laid off, I went through the typical stages of grief one goes through when they lose a job. I felt mad, depressed, and confused. Finally, though, I learned to accept it, and what helped me more than anything in this stage of acceptance was gratitude. I remembered that life was still pretty good in a lot of ways. Once I did that, I started to feel oddly empowered. My internal locus of control returned and I felt like I was in the driver’s seat again.
Psychologist Guy Winch touched on this concept in a recent TED talk. The gist of it is that when we fail, we tend to beat ourselves up and look for a place to attach our blame. To combat this, he’s suggested gratitude:
“I’m actually big on gratitude. I’m grateful every day for my health. I’m grateful every day for my relationships. And any time you encounter a stumbling block or a failure, you have to remind yourself that you’re capable.”
Gratitude is a great way to remind yourself, as Winch says, that you’re capable. It diverts your attention from the frustrating things you can’t control, which makes it easier to focus on the areas in which you do have control and power.
How to Practice Gratitude
Another study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, Gratitude as a Psychotherapeutic Intervention (PDF), researched the overall mental health benefits of gratitude and also touched on its untapped potential. The study read:
“Gratitude is a key, underappreciated quality in the clinical practice of psychology, its relevance deriving from its strong, unique, and causal relationship with well-being…Having rarely been the focus of process-oriented clinical interest, a major therapeutic resource has gone untapped…gratitude is both a preexisting key strength with which the client can draw upon for healing as well as an emerging quality stemming from the therapeutic relationship between client and therapist.”
They also mention that embracing gratitude comes down to some “relatively easy techniques.” For example, in this study, they include a simple journaling exercise. Write down a few simple things you’re grateful for every day. Keep the habit alive by making it part of your daily to-do list. The study also suggests mindfulness meditation.
“One of the first steps in gratitude practice is attention. Attention is noticing and becoming aware of blessings that we normally take for granted…Focusing techniques that enhance attentiveness (such as mindfulness meditation) will be effective in increasing one’s appreciation for the simple blessings of life and in banishing incompatible thoughts from consciousness.”
A lot of people might think mindfulness is silly, New Age mind fluff. I think it’s actually the opposite. It’s one thing to say, “I’m going to be more grateful” and another to actively embrace gratitude so that it’s useful and not just some moral platitude. Mindfulness helps you do that.
Morale is at an all-time low for a lot of people, and when you’re dealing with any setback, it’s important to process the anger and grief. For the sake of progress, though, I also think gratitude is a crucial part of the equation–not because of some moral obligation to remember that others have it worse, but because we need the energy to keep going.