It’s been a rough year, and yet there are things to be thankful for, despite the obvious and very challenging circumstances. As the pandemic drags deeper into the fall, and even with the promise of vaccines in the next year, the fact remains that the virus has upended our way of life. Thousands of lives have been lost, global economies and jobs have been crushed, and it will even disrupt the time-honored tradition of family and friends gathering together for the holidays. But we can – and should – continue to be grateful. Here’s why.
Gratitude goes beyond simply adapting to the circumstances: It is the thankful appreciation for positive things we experience, from major life moments and achievements, to simple pleasures we take for granted, as well as the people that we appreciate in our lives.
A key personality trait associated with positive emotional functioning, it is also a powerful tool to help you shape the narrative of your life and establish a more positive balance of acceptance and appreciation. Like many other positive habits, a concerted gratitude practice can help develop a sense of wellbeing and worth, even when our lives have changed due to age, loss of a loved one, illness, or other challenges. Some studies suggest practicing gratitude can reduce stress, improve sleep, and foster better relationships by building a sense of empathy and forgiveness.
As a clinical psychologist who works with aging populations, many of them who are battling depression, I know first-hand how a regular practice of gratitude –including the writing a gratitude journal—can be transforming, but also taxing. Sometimes, situations arise where someone is unable to identify a different aspect of their lives for which they are grateful. I let them know that this is absolutely ok.
That said, and while I am professionally aware of the myriad benefits of gratitude, it’s not easy to keep feeling grateful in a pandemic. We are constantly bombarded with bad news, and I myself have fallen into the trap of focusing my attention on all the negativity in my world, leaving me with a warped view of life that leaves little room for gratitude. So, how can we be grateful in this crazy time?
Step one: Define a place for gratitude in your life
There are two ways to work on gratitude in a clinical practice: verbally and in a gratitude journal. I have found that bringing in gratitude and having a verbal discussion in the clinical work seems to be most effective for those who are dealing with circumstances that are outside of their control. The pandemic has presented numerous opportunities to work with gratitude with my patients.
When working with those who are able to maintain a journal, the actual type of journal does not seem to matter too much – as long as the patient has something that can collect their responses and that they can review periodically is really all that is needed. In order for this to become a practice, an initial buy-in is necessary, and this can be obtained often by the basic act of identifying an aspect of their life for which they are grateful – especially when life spirals outside of their control, being reminded of things in their life for which they are grateful can provide immediate benefits and makes it likely that this can become a habit.
Step two: Make it a daily habit
For patients living in a situation where so many things are outside of their control, and especially in the midst of the pandemic, I do recommend that this become a daily exercise.
Doing this the same time each day can enhance the chances that this becomes a regular and consistent practice, and a good time to do this might be before dinner – enough of the day has gone by where most people can identify at least one thing in their life that occurred during the day that brings up gratitude. Instead of prescribing a certain number of gratitude items to identify for the list, I usually recommend that patients identify at a minimum one item for their daily gratitude list, and they are welcome to add more if they would like.
Step three: Start to track the good things in life
Once committed to practicing gratitude, the good stuff can begin! Working with your clinician or by yourself, begin to ask questions – again, on a daily basis – which explore the positive aspects in your life. Take a look at these and others suggested by Positive Psychology Journal:
- Recall a person in your life that you are especially grateful for and why
- What is the one skill or ability that you are grateful for having?
- What have you learned from a specific challenge in your life that you are grateful for?
- What hobbies have you been able to maintain during the pandemic that bring you joy?
- What do you love about the city where you live?
- What item in your home gives you a sense of warmth and happiness?
- What is the one song you love and when did you first hear it?
- Who has helped you this week and how could you thank them?
- What foods or meals are you most thankful for?
There are no right or wrong ways to work with gratitude, but sometimes it can cause undue anxiety and distress if someone feels that they have “run out” of things in their lives that bring them gratitude. In response, I’d suggest focusing on just three main aspects of one’s life for which one is grateful, something which can bring a tremendous sense of relief and of balance.
Remember, you can be grateful even for the little things in life count. Being grateful for seemingly super small things such having the time to enjoy a pancake breakfast with your children can seem mundane, but I do like the idea of being able to be grateful about even the small things in life. It’s a reminder that not everything in life is going off the deep end. Being grateful for the small things can prime us to be grateful about the big things in life as well.
About Dr. John Y. Lee
Dr. Lee holds a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology and a Bachelor of Science in Biochemistry from UCLA, as well as a Master of Divinity from the Fuller Theological Seminary and a Master of Psychology and Doctorate of Philosophy of Clinical Psychology at the Fuller Graduate School of Psychology. In addition to providing direct care for patients and supervising colleagues at EMH, Dr. Lee trains for nursing home staff regarding a variety of topics, including management of difficult behaviors, psychoeducation related to dementia and other neurocognitive conditions, and trauma-informed care. When Dr. Lee is not consumed by his work at EMH, Dr. Lee also remains involved in his community, where he mentors young adults and volunteers as a coach for youth sports.