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People typically come into therapy at the low end of the gratitude spectrum. They are desperate, often thinking negatively about themselves and their circumstances.
In their initial evaluation, I always ask a couple questions that give some clues into their current emotional state. I’ll ask them to identify their strengths, which is often difficult for them beyond a few surface level platitudes.
Conversely, I will ask them to identify their weaknesses, or things they feel they need to work on. What follows is often a laundry list of things not going well for them in that moment. It could be dissatisfaction with relationships, career path, motivation, coping with negative emotions, or just generally missing life fulfillment.
Finally, I’ll ask them what resources they have or are using right now. This could apply to helpful people in their lives, spiritual practices, supportive organizations (which could include work), coping skills they find useful, or even hobbies they enjoy. Despite me listing all of these options, people often have a hard time identifying what they have access to.
This is becoming a well studied phenomenon wherein people are more familiar with and focused on the obstacles holding them back instead of the resources enabling them to succeed. The academic psychologists Shai Davidai and Thomas Gilovich recently published a paper titled The Headwinds/Tailwinds Asymmetry: An Availability Bias in Assessments of Barriers and Blessings.
In this paper they discuss people’s tendencies to focus on those obstacles. In a recent interview on the Freakonomics podcast, Gilovich provided a summary of why this happens:
“We have to pay attention to the barriers in front of us because we have to get over them, or get through them in some way. We have to overcome them. We don’t have to pay attention to those things that are boosting us along. We can just be boosted along. And that fundamental asymmetry in attention is the headwinds/tailwind asymmetry.”
Conversely, Davidai and Gilovich also acknowledge that a gratitude practice has been shown to have the following benefits:
- Improved sleep quality
- Fewer doctor visits
- Less depressive symptoms
- Improved relationships
- Improved empathy towards others/reduced aggression
- Improved self-esteem
- Increased mental strength/resilience
- Improved positive action/progress towards goals (in personal experience)
If gratitude is so powerful then, why is it such an uncommon practice, outside of say, the thanksgiving dinner table? Well, picture a racehorse with blinders on. They can literally only see the things in front of them, as if things to the side of them or behind them don’t even exist. This is what life is like for a lot of us. We take for granted what has gotten us to where we are today (tailwinds) and only see the things in our way (headwinds).
It is not an easy transition to go from only seeing the obstacles in our lives to better appreciating what has helped us along the way. This is particularly true for people coping with depression, anxiety, PTSD, or even just poor self esteem or self image. Years of seeing things around them as depressing or dangerous makes it difficult to all of a sudden start a gratitude journal. This is why I will often suggest that my patients just try to first notice less bad or neutral circumstances in their lives.
For example, you may not be able to go from “I’m a failure” all the way to “I’m grateful for the opportunities I am given.” This may be especially true if you have difficulty seeing those opportunities. However, you may be able to make the simpler transition to “There were legitimate reasons why I did not do as well as I wanted to.” This second statement takes into consideration factors that may have been out of your control and is less judgmental.
Once you are able to begin widening the scope of what you notice about yourself and the world around you, it is easier to make the transition to being grateful for your blessings and less resentful of your barriers. This is where the opportunity to start a gratitude practice begins.
Use This Gratitude Method
The easiest method (and the one I use myself and often recommend to my patients) is Bob Proctor’s Daily Gratitude List. The exercise works as follows:
- Identify (up to) 10 things/people/circumstances you are grateful for.
- Be quiet for five minutes and ask for guidance for the day.
- Send love to three people who are bothering you.
That’s it. This should in total take no more than 15 minutes, and can be done at the end of the day (to acknowledge things from the day that have gone well and to promote good sleep) or at the beginning of the day (to set positive intentions for the day and reduce anticipatory stress) or even both.
A few thoughts on each step:
Step One: Identify things we are grateful for
On identifying things we are grateful for, a note from Davidai:
“When you ask people what are you grateful for, the prototypical answer is: my parents, my family, my friends, my loved ones. What they’re missing is all these invisibles.”
He goes on to identify such “invisibles” as your education, freedom of speech, access to technology, having basic needs met such as food, water, shelter, and clothing, and others.
In my experience, if you have a goal to improve something in your life, starting with gratitude can be extremely effective. I have noticed in my own practice that if I acknowledge being grateful for my wife first thing in the morning, I am more likely to make her tea or get a chore done that she then won’t have to do.
If I acknowledge my parents, family, or friends I will be more likely to reach out to them or to schedule an opportunity to meet. If I acknowledge being grateful for my job I’m more likely to leave a few minutes early to be adequately prepared. If I acknowledge being grateful for my health I am more likely to make a healthy lunch than to forget and end up with fast food.
This is what I mean by starting the triggering success. I start by acknowledging my gratitude and in doing so am more likely to do things that improve my standing within those circumstances. Then those positive behaviors are rewarded leaving me with even more to be grateful for.
Step Two: Be quiet for five minutes
The second step is very similar to a mindfulness exercise, which similarly has been shown to have numerous benefits including stress reduction, reduced rumination, improved working memory, and focus. I personally like the “ask for guidance” part. Whether you are spiritual or not, there is something grounding in asking your higher power (whatever it may be) for help to start your day.
Step Three: Send love to three people who are bothering you
This is a unique step within gratitude practices, and it may seem counter-intuitive as you wouldn’t think “gratitude” and “people who are bothering you” would go together. Consider this though, if you cannot come up with three people who are bothering you, wouldn’t that be something to be grateful for on its own? If you can, sending out love or positive thoughts for them falls within a useful skill of Dialectical Behavior Therapy known as Opposite Emotion Action. It is a skill used to reduce unwanted emotional responses and increase positive emotions.
Unwanted emotional responses are also covered by Gilovich when he was asked on the Freakonomics podcast about how perceiving ourselves as having more headwinds (barriers) than others can cause problems:
“…it feeds resentment, which doesn’t make us our best selves. Prevents us from thinking most rationally and acting most productively. Each community is going to think that the other one has it easier than they do when in fact they don’t. That’s the misperception. And if they think that the other group has it easier, that’s tempting. First of all, it’s going to make them less likely to want to do good things for people in the other community and it might even encourage them to do some questionable things, too, in their minds even though the slate is already even.”
So if you can send out love and positive thoughts to someone, even though you might not be getting along with them, you will be more likely to maintain the positive frame of mind the gratitude exercise has just helped you establish.
One Extra Method
Another gratitude exercise I will assign to my patients is well covered in the following Youtube video from Soulpancake:
As you can see in the video, people’s levels of happiness were significantly improved by having them write a letter to someone they were grateful for and then sharing that letter with them. The test subjects in the video become noticeably happier after sharing their gratitude.
Imagine being on the other end of those phone calls. Imagine how good it would feel to hear about the positive impact you have had on that family member or friend. You would probably want to pass that feeling along, or at least pay it back through continued positive actions.
In summary, gratitude may seem like a simple idea. All I have to do is be grateful for the good things that have helped me along the way? While it may seem simple, you will only reap the benefits if it actually becomes a practice. This means more than just thinking grateful thoughts once and awhile, but actually acknowledging your gratitude to the people and resources that help you every day, preferably followed by positive action steps to affirm those resources. Then the race really gets going, and success follows!