Gratitude: Why It’s Hard and Why It’s Helpful

Written by Samantha Wall, LCSW

photo credit: https://leadchangegroup.com/daily-gratitude/

 

What does it really mean to use gratitude? Gratitude is “the quality of being thankful; readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness” (Oxford English Dictionary). There has been a ton of research done about gratitude and how it is beneficial for your mental health. How is it actually helpful? And why is it so hard to actually practice gratitude? 

Gratitude has so many benefits, first, it creates a shift in our brain from focusing on the negatives to the positives. It benefits many aspects of a person’s life including emotional, social, career, and health. When there is a focus on positives, such as positives of hard situations, and a decrease in the focus on the negative, it has been shown in studies that mental health improves (Brown and Wong, 2017). This shift in a focus on the positives moves our attention away from the negative mind set. Gratitude also has lasting effects on the brain. Studies have shown an increase in long term happiness by 10% (Emmons & McCullough, 2003; Seligman, Steen, Park, & Peterson, 2005). Career benefits also include improving patience, helping find meaning in our work, improving decision making, reducing turnover and burnout, and overall reducing stress. Seems like a “fix all” right? But why don’t people use it more if it is proven to improve overall life? 

As humans, we are usually impacted more by negative events than the positive ones. This is something called the negativity bias. Negativity bias is the tendency to focus and dwell on the negative stimuli in our lives. This bias comes from our need to survive; if we focus on the negative stimuli in our lives, we are more likely to survive. Unfortunately, this bias can cause issues in relationships, decision making, and our perception of others. It is also so easy to fall into this mindset, especially when there is so much negativity for our brain to focus on. Working in an environment like nursing, you have interactions daily with patients that could be negative, see negative (life-threatening) situations, and have to focus on what could or is going wrong with patients. Based on instincts and the job, it could be really hard to turn that off at the end of the day. 

Gratitude also takes time and commitment. Building and keeping up with the habit of gratitude can be hard, especially on days where a lot of stress occurs. It takes us getting into a habit, continuing to practice it daily, while also holding a balance of acknowledging how the negative situations affect us. There is that line of toxic positivity, and that is another reason I think gratitude is hard. We see it as either being positive OR negative. What gratitude is all about is shifting our thinking, not ignoring the struggles, but reframing the struggles in our brain. When we think in a more positive way, situations become less stressful to get through.

There are many different ways to practice gratitude and many different ways to show gratitude. Some ideas are: 

  • Journaling: Writing down 3-5 things you are grateful for is an easy and popular way to practice gratitude. Some suggest doing this daily, others say to do it weekly. The purpose of journaling is to reflect on the period of time and remember what you are especially grateful for. 
  • Gratitude Jar: Finding a jar, decorate the jar if you would like, and write on slips of paper daily about what you are grateful for. If you are feeling down or struggling with stress, it is a great way to find one thing you are grateful for! 
  • Gratitude Rock: Find a rock that you like, and put the rock in a place that you see often, whether that is in your pocket, purse, on your desk, or in your car. Whenever you see it or touch it, think of something you are grateful for. With this practice of gratitude, you can flip the switch multiple times a day! 
  • Gratitude Prompts/Gratitude Journal: There are so many journals that are made with prompts for gratitude! I have found some on Amazon and Target. I am sure there are so many stores that make gratitude journals. 
  • Gratitude Walk: Going on a walk with the intention of observing what is around you, being aware of the colors, sounds, and smells. I would recommend a walk in a park or where there is more nature versus smells of a city! 

Other ways to show gratitude in our daily lives: 

  • Say thank you genuinely. Say thank you to your parents, friends, co-workers, to someone who has helped you through your day, no matter how small. 
  • Acknowledge other people’s efforts. 
  • Accept and thank yourself. 

There is always something to be grateful for, it is a mindset shift! Gratitude is not an easy mindset all of the time, that is why it is a practice, there will always be room for learning and growth! If you are interested in finding out how gratitude helps make changes in your daily life, I would highly recommend reading the article “How Gratitude Changes You and Your Brain.” It focuses on a study done on college students seeking mental health services. (https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/how_gratitude_changes_you_and_your_brain

 

Sources used: 
https://positivepsychology.com/benefits-gratitude-research-questions/ 
https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/hide-and-seek/201612/why-gratitude-is-so-hard#:~:text=Despite%20these%20many%20and%20varied%20benefits%2C%20gratitude%20is,our%20successes%20while%20blaming%20others%20for%20our%20failures
https://www.newharbinger.com/blog/self-help/why-is-gratitude-so-hard-during-the-pandemic/ 
https://www.spirituallivingforbusypeople.com/cultivate-gratitude 
https://www.dumblittleman.com/5-reasons-hard-grateful/ 
https://www.verywellmind.com/negative-bias-4589618#:~:text=Verywell%20%2F%20Brianna%20Gilmartin-,What%20Is%20the%20Negativity%20Bias%3F,feel%20the%20joy%20of%20praise
https://positivepsychology.com/3-steps-negativity-bias/ 
https://positivepsychology.com/gratitude-exercises/ 
https://www.chriswinfield.com/gratitude-lists/

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