Gratitude as an antidote for negative mood
Two months ago I started a daily gratitude practice. I made this commitment because thinking intentionally about gratitude has not come naturally to me. Growing up I did not really learn to be thankful for what I had, and whether that lesson was not taught well or I missed it is up for debate. But as an adult in my spiritual reflection, I have tended to focus more on asking for forgiveness for my shortcomings and praying that things in the future will go my way or go smoothly. Generally, in the times that I have been motivated to turn inward or to reach out to God for strength, it has rarely been when I was in a positive state. Instead, it has been when I have come up against hard times, and gratitude has not been readily available in those moments. Rather I have been apt to implore the universe to make things better and to provide relief for my discomfort and pain.
But in the course of my studies of positive psychology, the research supporting the benefits of gratitude appeared over and over again (in the work of Dr. Martin Seligman, Dr. Barbara Fredrickson and Dr. Dan Tomasulo, to name a few scholars). It seems clear that practicing gratitude enhances wellbeing by helping us to shift our mindset to what is good and right in our lives. And doing so on a regular basis, making a habit out of gratitude, is preventative medicine for the more challenging times in our lives.
As I grew in my understanding of establishing and supporting a grateful mindset, I realized that I needed to start my own gratitude practice. Following the advice of the researchers, I set aside time in the morning to write in a gratitude journal. I do not think too hard about what I say; I just start with the words “I am grateful for” or “I am grateful that.” Sometimes I might write three gratitudes, sometimes a dozen. Sometimes, if I am particularly grumpy, I simply write “I am grateful that I have the strength to tolerate my negative feelings.” I’ll often reflect on things that went well the day before or things that I am looking forward to in the future, or people that I am grateful for. Studies support that savoring the past and looking optimistically into the future have transformative effects on our resilience, our capacity to persevere through hard times, as well as positively impact outcomes in our future. And indeed after two months, I have found that gratitude is making me emotionally heartier. I feel more grounded in my present and more content with my lot in life, the good and the less than ideal. I feel more excited about new challenges and regard myself as more capable and ready to take them on. These might sound like generalizations or platitudes, but they are true. I just see it in myself.
Here’s another data point of my own to support the research on gratitude. Over the last four days, I was travelling and on a different schedule, and I let my gratitude practice go. My mood spiraled down, and I noticed that by yesterday afternoon, I was almost spewing negativity at anyone who was within range. I don’t think that this decompensation was simply due to forgetting to be grateful; there were many forces at work that were the just causes of grief, disappointment and desolation, with the ongoing ill effects of the pandemic being just one of them. But I wonder, if I had made time for my gratitude journaling in the morning, or even at a quiet moment later in the day, would I have gone into a such a tailspin? A number of things have lightened my mood over the last twenty-four hours, and this morning I resumed my gratitude practice. It’s hard to decipher the mechanisms of it all, but one thing is clear to me: whether cause or effect or protective factor, gratitude lifts my spirits and enhances my wellbeing. If that piques your curiosity, give it a try!