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Practicing Gratitude During a Difficult Season of Life

Updated: Jan 14

- Teresa Jacobson, DBH, LPCC-S, NCC

November 2, 2023



It can feel daunting to consider a practice of gratitude when life is challenging. Even during the hardest of times, gratefulness is something that can help keep hope alive.


Feeling grateful is different than being grateful. It may seem inconceivable to think of someone feeling grateful after losing a job or loved one; but having gratitude for the experience, or love shared can help ease pain.


"Trials and suffering can actually refine and deepen gratefulness if we allow them to show us not to take things for granted" (Emmons, 2013). Gratitude is not only a virtue, it's a lifeline. "In fact, it is precisely under crisis conditions when we have the most to gain by a grateful perspective on life."


It can seem impossible to imagine what to be grateful for when it feels like your world is falling apart. This article explores the construct of gratitude, its benefits, and a guide of how to experience gratitude even in the most difficult seasons of life.


Gratitude Explained


Sansone and Sansone (2010) offer the following as a definition: "Gratitude is the appreciation of what is valuable and meaningful to oneself and represents a general state of thankfulness and/or appreciation." Gratitude is foundational to one's mental health and overall well-being.


Gratitude is explained in research as both a state (emotional reaction to current experience) and a trait (personality characteristic) (Rash, Matsuba, & Prkachin, 2011). The state of gratitude is a "positive, social emotion experienced when an underserved act of kindness or generosity is freely given by another person." Gratitude is considered a "complex, higher-level emotion" due to the "complex sophistication" required. Gratitude is also described as a felt sense of wonder, thankfulness, and appreciation for life.


"As a trait, gratitude is understood as a 'virtue' or characteristic of people and can vary in intensity, frequency, and span" (Rash, Matsuba, & Prkachin, 2011). People who have a character trait high in gratitude "feel more grateful following a positive emotion, and experience gratitude more times per day and across a wider array of life circumstances compared to those lower in gratitude."


Researcher Robert Emmons (2010) describes gratitude as having two components. First, gratitude as an affirmation of goodness. Secondly, the source of gratitude: "Where did this goodness come from?" "Who do I give thanks to?" Emmons describes gratitude as being as necessary as life itself.


Gratitude has been well established as a universal human trait. "Its presence is felt and expressed in different ways by virtually all peoples, of all cultures, worldwide" (Emmons & Stern, 2013). "The fact that gratitude is universal across all cultures suggests that it is part of the fabric of human nature. A positive affirmation of life comes from a deep sense of gratitude to all forms of existence, a gratitude rooted in the essence of being itself, which permeates one’s every thought, speech, and action."


Gratitude is a powerful attribute that can heal hurt and help ease emotional suffering.


Benefits of Gratefulness


Excessive worry and rumination not only intensify but prolong sadness and distress. Cultivating gratitude can take considerable effort, but a world without gratitude may feel unendurable (Emmons & Shelton, 2002). Research is growing in the field of gratitude and reveals benefits to health and well-being.


Studies have shown that more grateful people are healthier and happier, "more satisfied with their lives, less materialistic, and less likely to suffer from burnout" (Allen, 2018). Additionally, the practice of gratitude can lead to better sleep, less fatigue, lower levels of inflammation, less depression, and become more resilient following traumatic events.


Gratitude is shown to increase well-being, lower depression, increase satisfaction with relationships, and achieve more in accomplishing goals for accepting themselves. "Grateful people are more giving" (Emmons, 2014). By focusing outward, people report they are more optimistic, and are less likely to take the good in life for granted.


Empirical evidence is growing in recent years regarding the benefits of practicing gratitude. As described by Emmons (2014), research has shown gratitude helps people:

  • Become more active and exercise more.

  • Sleep more efficiently, waking up feeling more refreshed.

  • Be less likely to use substances and smoke.

  • Engage more in health-promoting behaviors and are less likely to engage in health-damaging decisions and behaviors.

  • Lower blood pressure 10-15%.

  • Improve cholesterol and kidney functioning.

Gratefulness has been shown to improve both happiness and overall health, while expressing gratitude is shown to strengthen relationships. It can be valuable to both the person experiencing gratitude, as well as the receiver.


"Studies from neuroscience have identified brain areas that are likely involved in experiencing and expressing gratitude, providing further evidence for the idea that gratitude is an intrinsic

component of the human experience" (Allen, 2018). Practicing gratitude is not always intuitive; it can take considerable effort in difficult times.



Some invest a lot of time and resources searching for ways to help them feel better. The practice of gratitude requires only your intention, attention, and time.



Cultivating Gratefulness


Positive Psychology has dedicated the last two decades researching and cultivating positive human traits, strengths and virtues (Komase, Watanabe, Hori, Nozawa, Hidaka, Iida, Imamura, & Kawakami, 2021). Gratitude has emerged as a vital part of a life experience that allows one to thrive despite suffering. Two interventions have been frequently studied and are shown to be effective with this endeavor, the gratitude list or journal, and a gratitude letter.


How to keep a Gratitude Journal


Writing down five things a day for which you are grateful for at least three times a week for at least two weeks has been shown to make a noticeable difference in well-being. This activity and record makes a stronger impact than just reflecting in your mind. Here are some guidelines to consider as you begin.

  • Be as specific as you can. Being clear and explanatory makes a difference. Rather than, "I'm thankful for my friend, Tom," consider more specificity, "I'm thankful that my friend Tom was thoughtful and called to ask me how the interview went."

  • Go into depth of what you are grateful for. "Tom was curious and seemed genuinely interested in the experience of the interview and the anxiety I had. I appreciate his suggestion of sending a thank you letter."

  • Be personal. A focus on a person which you are grateful for is more impactful then being grateful for a thing. "I'm thankful for my mentor, Barb, who had confidence in my strength and skills when I did not."

  • Focus on both things that didn't happen and things that did happen. Don't just focus on the good things, also focus on what life might be like without certain people or things. "I'm thankful I have the means to buy food that nourishes me."

  • See things and people you are thankful for as gifts, rather than taking them for granted.

  • Savor surprises, recording events that were unexpected tend to strengthen feelings of gratitude.

  • Write about a variety of people and things with different details.

  • Commit to writing things you are grateful for regularly.


How to write a Gratitude Letter


Call to mind someone who you have deep appreciation for but to whom you have not truly expressed your gratitude. The activity suggests picking someone who is still alive and could meet you or talk with you face-to-face. It is advised you consider someone you have not thought about for awhile, or one that is not always on your mind. Then write a letter following these steps:

  • Write as though you are addressing this person directly (“Dear ______”).

  • Pay no attention to perfect grammar or spelling.

  • Describe in specific terms what this person did, why you are grateful to this person, and how this person’s behavior affected your life. Try to be as concrete as possible.

  • Share what you are doing in your life now and how you often remember his, her, or their efforts.

  • Keep your letter to roughly one page.


After writing the letter, consider delivering your letter in person (or if distance is an issue, over a phone or video chat), following these suggested steps:

  • Plan a visit with the recipient. Let that person know you’d like to see him or her and have something special to share, but don’t reveal the exact purpose of the meeting.

  • Upon meeting, let the person know that you are grateful to them and would like to read a letter expressing your gratitude; ask that he or she refrain from interrupting until you’re done.

  • Take your time reading the letter. While you read, pay attention to their reaction as well as your own.

  • Be receptive to their reaction and discuss your feelings together.

  • Remember to give the letter to the person when you leave.


The practice of gratitude letter writing benefits you, as you write the letter, but even more significantly from reading it to the recipient of your gratitude. "Gratitude heals, energizes, and changes lives" (Emmons, 2014).


With effort and intention, noticing and recording what you are grateful for can take you one step closer to a healthier future. Regardless of the season of life you are in, a practice of gratitude can help you flourish.



 

Teresa Jacobson is a Doctor of Behavioral Health and Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor Supervisor who provides therapy using evidence-based practices to counsel Ohio and Kentucky adults of all ages and life experiences via secure Telehealth visits. An empathetic, strength-based, person-centered multi-cultural counselor with an existential philosophy, Teresa can be reached by emailing steppingtowardserentiy@proton.me ,

calling (513) 206-3026, or visiting


 


References


Allen, S. (2018). The science of gratitude. Greater Good Science Center. Retrieved from


Emmons, R., and Shelton, C.M. (2002). Gratitude and the science of positive psychology. Handbook of

Positive Psychology, Oxford University Press, Oxford, NY.


Emmons, R. (2010, November 19). The power of gratitude. Greater Good Science Center. Retrieved


Emmons, R. (2013, May 13). How gratitude can help you through hard times. Greater Good Magazine.


Emmons, R., and Stern, R. (2013). Gratitude as a psychotherapeutic intervention. Journal of Clinical

Psychology: In Session. 69(8), 846–855 (2013) DOI: 10.1002/jclp.22020


Emmons, R. (2014, March 6). Gratitude works!: The science and practice of saying thanks. YouTube


Komase, Y., Watanabe, K., Hori, D., Nozawa, K., Hidaka, Y., Iida, M., Imamura, K., and Kawakami, N. (2021).

Effects of gratitude intervention on mental health and well-being among workers: A systemic

review. J Occup Health 63(1). DOI:10.1002/1348-9585.12290


Rash, J.A., Matsuba, M.K., and Prkachin, K.M. (2011). Gratitude and well-being: Who benefits the most

from a gratitude intervention. Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being, 3 (3), 350–369 .

DOI:10.1111/j.1758-0854.2011.01058.x


Sansone, R.A., and Sansone, L.A. (2010). Gratitude and well being. Psychiatry. 7(11): 18–22. Retrieved






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