Developing a practice of gratitude

by Mikel LePorte
Mental Health Columnist

November is here, and you know what that means? It’s that time of year where we are reminded that we are supposed to show non-stop thankfulness and gratitude 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

This time of giving thanks started here in the United States over 400 years ago when the pilgrims celebrated their first Autumn harvest. Growing and cultivating those first crops took a great deal of toil and labor, and most importantly, the help of the Wampanoag Indians. Without this help, the pilgrims would likely have starved to death.

The concept of that kind of sharing is the epitome of gratefulness, a cognitive-affective state where one acknowledges a personal benefit, she or he has received because of the actions of another.

Cultivating gratitude takes as much hard work, if not more, as it did for the pilgrims to raise those first crops. This practice is especially true for those of us who live with depression, anxiety, or other mental health concerns.  

Although it can be hard for many of us to feel and express gratitude, it turns out that all of those telling us to do just that are on to something. Gratitude has a stronger link to positive mental health than hope, optimism, or compassion (Emmons & Stern, 2013).

Grateful people have been found to express higher levels of joy, love, happiness, optimism, and enthusiasm. Those who develop a gratitude practice are better able to fight off feelings of envy, greed and resentment. These individuals are also better equipped to deal with everyday stress, increase their resilience when faced with trauma-induced stress, recover quicker from illness, and enjoy overall better physical and mental health.

If like me, you struggle with gratitude, you may be asking yourself, where do I begin? Well, the first step won’t be a popular one. It truly is a choice. Much like the soil for the pilgrims’ crops had to be cultivated and worked, we need to create a soil that will allow gratitude to grow.

This step means choosing gratitude, even when we don’t feel like we can or even want to. It is a “fake it until you make it” situation. You might be thinking, alright smart smart-ass, how do I choose gratitude? Here are some ideas on what you can do to grow your practice of gratitude.

Keep a gratitude journal: Okay, go ahead and get the groans out of the way. If you’ve ever been to therapy, you’ve probably been asked to keep a journal, and for many this is a difficult and often tedious task. The thing is, it works because, in those times when you are feeling particularly down, you can review the things you’ve written down that you are grateful for, thus prompting you to think of even more reasons to be grateful.

The reason why keeping a gratitude journal works to develop a practice of gratitude is that it focuses our attention on noticing and appreciating those things for which we can be grateful. When keeping the journal try to do it daily and write as many things down as you can for which you are grateful. Some days, the number of things you can come up with may only be one. That’s okay, write it down. Maybe it was a mundane event, a personality trait, or an act of kindness someone showed you throughout the day.

Get a gratitude rock: If keeping a journal just absolutely repulses you or you’ve tried it, and it doesn’t work, then find a rock that you find unique and appealing. Keep it in your pocket. Each time you touch the rock throughout the day, think of one thing, or many things, that you have to be grateful for in that exact moment.

Keep a gratitude jar: Decorate a jar of some sort and keep it somewhere prominent in your place of residence. Anytime you think of something for which you are grateful, write it on a piece of paper. Then when you are able, drop that piece of paper in the gratitude jar. Once a month, or at the end of the year, take out the pieces of paper and read them.

Write letters: Send a handwritten letter, or email if you must, to those who you are grateful for. Be sure to be specific in your letter about what the person said or did for which you are expressing your gratitude.

Pay it forward: Giving to those who have a specific need we can meet allows us to feel grateful for the things we have in our own lives.

This year has been tough on many of us. During trying times, it can be hard to find a reason to be grateful. It may be, though, during these times of trial and tribulation, we need gratitude the most.

I hope you will join me in building a practice of gratitude in your life, and that you can reap some of the benefits such as improving your mental health.

Copyright The Gayly. 11/5/2019 @ 7:02 a.m. CST.