When we’re at our worst, it’s nearly impossible to believe we have something to be grateful for, but experts say that’s when the practice is most powerful.
Gratitude is studied continuously by scientists and spiritualists alike to determine its impact.
Each one of us has the capability to not only understand its power, but also cultivate a habit of it to enrich our lives.
The Brain Is Just Trying to Help
Our brains are incredible machines. They process and store information in amazing ways. And deeply-rooted in our neural pathways are primitive defense mechanisms designed to protect us from harm. This is the brain’s natural state: find problems and stay alert to keep us safe.
The amygdala—a region of the brain that experiences emotion—focuses on the negative about 10 times more than the positive. Also referred to as negativity bias, it’s a way to process bad news and help us. Consequently, says researcher Randy Larson, we tend to focus on negative thoughts and emotions, even while good things are happening. This is an evolutionary default setting.
Substance use disorder (SUD) and other compulsive behaviors often exacerbate the amygdala’s hyper-functioning. As brain chemistry changes due to addiction or compulsivity, it’s increasingly difficult for the amygdala to process emotions accurately. This is why so many people who may have co-occurring mental health disorders experience self-regulating challenges.
It’s not enough to simply tell yourself to stop negative thoughts; they have to be replaced with positive ones. Like pulling weeds from a garden and planting flowers, the process takes deliberate practice. This is where fostering gratitude may help.
What Is Gratitude?
Gratitude has a number of definitions. Here are a few:
- Harvard Medical School offers this explanation: “Gratitude is a thankful appreciation for what an individual receives, whether tangible or intangible. With gratitude, people acknowledge the goodness in their lives. In the process, people usually recognize that the source of that goodness lies at least partially outside themselves. As a result, gratitude also helps people connect to something larger than themselves as individuals—whether to other people, nature, or a higher power.”
- Gratefulness.org quotes psychologist Robert Emmons: “First, gratitude is an affirmation of goodness. We affirm that there are good things in the world, gifts and benefits we’ve received. We also recognize that the sources of this goodness are outside of ourselves…We acknowledge that other people…gave us many gifts, big and small, to help us achieve the goodness in our lives.”
- FamilyLife references Christian radio show host and author Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth: “‘Do not be anxious about anything,’ the apostle Paul wrote, ‘but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus’ (Philippians 4:6-7). To put it even more simply: In every situation…prayer plus thanksgiving equals peace.”
- The National Institutes of Health simplifies it this way: “Gratitude is the appreciation of what is valuable and meaningful to oneself; it is a general state of thankfulness and/or appreciation.”
- The Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley published an article last year that outlined a range of studies regarding some of the mental, emotional, and physical merits of gratitude:
- It helps make people happier.
- It improves connections with others.
- It makes it easier to cope with symptoms of anxiety and depression, and may even reduce suicidal thoughts.
- It often helps quiet the mind and enable better sleep.
- It might be a tool to reduce chronic pain symptoms and intense fatigue.
- It can be a resourceful coping mechanism for stress, triggers, or cravings.
- It may enhance support tools such as faith or spirituality.
Easy Ways to Practice Gratitude
Often when you or someone you love enters an inpatient rehabilitation facility, you understand there are major changes ahead. It’s often difficult to accept one state of being and move through fear and uncertainty to the next level. Practicing gratitude for things large and small is one way to create a buffer of courage and comfort.
Spirituality and Health offers these suggestions from Deepak Chopra for engaging in gratitude:
- Maintain a gratitude journal. This can be as simple as answering three questions at the end of each day: who or what inspired you, who or what added to your happiness, and who or what helped you experience peace. Do this for one month and then read your responses as an exercise in reflection.
- Write a letter of thanks. The method encourages you to think of five people who had “a profound impact on your life.” Then, chose one and write a thank you letter to that person with details about his or her gifts to you and the difference these made in your life. While saying thank you out loud is important, writing your gratitude has a greater impact on both you and the recipient. Here’s an interesting news item about Willingway from about a decade ago, prompted by a thank-you letter!
- Walk in gratitude. If you’re feeling overwhelmed or blue, find a place where you can walk for about 20 minutes or so undisturbed. As your body releases negative energy, you can use the time to replant your mental garden. Get rid of the weeds and replace the space with reasons to be thankful—even for the challenges that present you with new opportunities for growth.
Willingway’s Support of Spirituality and Self-Care
Members of both our long-term and short-term programs, as well as clients of our outpatient and extended treatment services, receive contentious guidance on the best practices for well-being. We’re thankful for your trust in us, and want to provide you with coping methods that help you truly feel grateful for every day.