Gratitude – a powerful tool to support your mental health.

Look through any search for what supports your mental health and well-being and you may well come across information and suggestions around gratitude and having a gratitude practice. I first came across it when I did my mindfulness course some ten years ago. Prior to that as I was growing up my memory of it was being told I should be grateful as there were others worse off than me. It was not the most helpful or accurate way to learn about gratitude and I wonder how many of us view it in this way. Another way is what is often referred to as the “Pollyanna” approach whereby everything is wonderful, and life is always to be lived with a smile and nothing is ever too difficult.

The research shows that practicing gratitude can be a powerful tool to support your mental health and well-being. It is linked to a reduced risk of depression, better relationships, and increased resilience in the face of difficulties. I have learned to understand gratitude as something different from either of the ways I understood it growing up.

What is Gratitude?

So, what actually is this gratitude that can have such a positive effect on our well-being? Gratitude is like a muscle that we can build and strengthen over time. Its benefits come from having an outlook that seeks out and notices what we can be thankful for. When we are grateful, we are acknowledging what is good in our lives, it doesn’t have to be something big and grand, and it is often the small daily things we take for granted that we learn to notice.  We choose what we notice and look for things that we appreciate or are grateful for. I recently watched a YouTube video with Martin Seligman, an American psychologist and author who researched well-being and positive psychology. In the video he acknowledged that about half of us have to learn optimism, and positivity. It is not something that comes naturally. Gratitude, noticing and acknowledging what is going well or what we are grateful for, helps us. When I looked it up in the dictionary it said gratitude was “the quality of being thankful”.

Why Gratitude?

As humans we all grow and develop with what is known as the “negativity bias”. This is part of our survival brain, it was designed to help us, to keep us focused on danger and what could go wrong. There is a quote by Rick Hanson another psychologist, who says our brains are like “Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for good ones.” What this means is that it is much easier to focus on what’s wrong than what is going well. While this is useful when we are in a dangerous situation, for us in our everyday lives it isn’t so much. It can create a mindset of “not enough” and a focus on lack or what we don’t have either materially or personally. I am such a bad person, I am in pain, I have to go to work, my job is awful, or I didn’t exercise today, or I lost my temper. I could go on, but I am sure you all understand and have experienced thoughts like this. Our attention narrows and we lose perspective, all we see is the negative and this can lead to us experiencing low mood and depression and feeling hopeless and inadequate.

Acknowledging gratitude brings a more balanced perspective and has been shown to decrease stress hormones and increase chemicals associated with happiness and pleasure. Practising gratitude can improve sleep, increase patience, help with stress and depression.

Can you remember how it felt in your body when you have been thankful for something? My experience is of a spreading warmth a sense of contentment and feeling grounded and present. Have you ever noticed that? We don’t ignore the difficulties, we create space for the things that are going well, there is usually something. It doesn’t have to be something big or splendid, in fact it is often the ordinary and everyday.

One way I have found that has changed my attitude when I remember to do it, is when I am caught in a traffic jam. So often we can get frustrated and annoyed and that builds in us, however I started saying to myself I am grateful to be in the jam and not the accident. I noticed it did bring a different perspective, not always that is true, I am still a work in progress. I noticed I was calmer less frustrated and more able to be patient while waiting for the traffic to move.

Ways to develop a gratitude practice

It doesn’t have to be complicated to develop a gratitude practise. Choose something that you feel able to do, rather than something that you feel you “should do” or would be “good to do”.  There are some simple ways, such as before you go to bed at night saying out loud three things that went well today, or that you are grateful for. You may want to have a gratitude buddy, someone you share with, this could be done easily by just sending a text. If every day seems too daunting, maybe once a week could be a starting point. You could set a timer on your phone to just stop and acknowledge what you are grateful for at a particular time of day. Maybe you could decide to look for opportunities in your day to say thank you to someone. Some people like to write a gratitude journal.

There was a research project where people were invited to write a letter to someone in their life who had helped them, to say thank you. The letter wasn’t going to be sent or delivered necessarily, just the act of writing brought about a change. You may already have a way that you like to notice what you are thankful or grateful for, there are lots of options.

You may think, but I don’t feel grateful, or my life is just so miserable now and so much is going wrong. You may fear that you will not find anything to be grateful for. In the beginning I did find it a bit false but over time I began to connect to real feelings of gratitude and that has grown for me. We can choose to notice what is going well, and sometimes we may even start with something like being grateful it isn’t raining when we walk to work or being grateful for a hot shower. I was reminded recently reading something, that we can look at a beautiful sunset or sunrise and it is a gift, something totally free just put there for our enjoyment. That resonated with me, it might not with you. I know during Covid I was extremely grateful for my health. When you start this practise, you may find yourself surprised by where it takes you. If you find this topic interesting, I encourage you to read further about it. Authors I have enjoyed include Brene Brown and Tara Brach. Any search on books or youtube videos on gratitude will bring up several choices, see which one grabs your attention.

A final thought to take away

I really like this quote by Brother David Steindl Rast, it so contradicts everything that is assumed about gratitude and having a happy or joyful life.

“The root of joy is gratefulness. It is not joy that makes us grateful; it is gratitude that makes us joyful”

My experience has been that although it took time and perseverance, having a gratitude practise has enriched my life. It has enabled me to see the many blessings I have in a balanced way, not negating the difficulties but offering a broader perspective. For me my intention is to live a life where I savour the good and offer myself compassion during the difficulties. I don’t have to get do it perfectly, it is more a direction of travel.

Brigid Errington

Brigid Errington

Brigid Errington is an experienced BACP accredited counsellor providing online and in person therapy to adults and young people over the age of 13. She is currently working at Holt Consulting Rooms