Thank Goodness: Gratitude as a Tool for Healing

Woman with roseGratitude is associated with a number of mental health benefits. There appears to be variability with regard to how often one feels grateful, but experiencing gratitude can be profoundly, deeply healing. When we are grateful, we leave little room for resentment, anger, self-righteousness, or envy; these emotions are incompatible with appreciating what is good about a circumstance or person.

Gratitude also fosters openness. At any given point in time, any one of us can identify others who are more or less fortunate than we are. Being in a state of gratitude reminds us that even in difficult situations, and when dealing with difficult people, there is almost always something that we can find—even if it requires space and time to do so—for which we can be grateful.

Gratitude in the Face of Difficulty

Many years ago, I worked with a man I’ll call “Rich” who had multiple medical problems that caused severe pain and limited financial resources. During the course of our work, Rich became confined to a wheelchair as his health continued to decline. The medications he received gave Rich only very limited relief, and his inability to work cost him both his home and his ability to get around without assistance.

Rich never insinuated that his situation didn’t challenge him to his core, nor did he pretend that if a cure was available he wouldn’t avail himself of it. When he was angry or frightened—which was often—Rich was honest about this. Yet, despite multiple and severe challenges to his sense of self, Rich frequently expressed gratitude for many things, including our time together. He was also able to delight in the simple and mundane, such as the multisensory pleasure inherent in drinking a cup of earl grey tea, or watching a sunset, or in receiving some small kindness from a stranger. I believe that Rich’s gratitude made his life more bearable, and likely extended his time here.

Most of my practice involves working with people who have experienced health issues, and many of those who come to see me struggle with chronic pain. Still others who enter into therapy are tasked with finding a way to feel safe in the world following a trauma, see positives despite depression or anxiety, or develop healthy relationships, even though they may not have experienced adequate nurturing. When one’s body changes in such a way that function is compromised, one’s appearance is altered, and/or one is challenged to find a sort of equilibrium in the presence of ongoing painful or otherwise unpleasant physical or emotional symptoms, it can feel especially difficult to find any silver lining.

In the face of difficulty, we all can quite easily and legitimately find reasons to be angry, envious, fearful, resentful, or filled with despair. It is important to create space to allow ourselves to feel whatever comes up, rather than denying our emotions. If we can step back from the situation, whatever it is in the present moment, and see the larger picture, quite often we can identify things for which we can be truly grateful. And this can be liberating.

What Does the Research Show?

A number of studies have looked at the links between gratitude and other psychological and social outcomes. Emmons and Mishra (2011) reviewed and summarized the literature on gratitude and well-being in a recent book chapter. They found that dispositional gratitude has been associated with greater emotional well-being, empathy, forgiveness, and willingness to help others, as well as the ability to recognize the contributions of others to one’s own successes. Although it is unclear which generates which, people who experience gratitude also tend to have higher levels of self-esteem.

Gratitude and Generosity Versus Materialism

The authors also found that gratitude is incompatible with materialism. Grateful people are less likely to define themselves in terms of their accomplishments and possessions, are more generous with what they have, and are less likely to envy the possessions or accomplishments of others.

Gratitude as an emotional and cognitive state is freeing because anger, resentment, jealousy, and envy, when experienced for too long, become a virtual prison. Even as a situation improves, if we cling to the pain of what we do not have, or what another does have, or what we wish was different, we cannot really feel free.

In addition to the above, gratitude prompts us to both appreciate what we have right now and to seek to help others; it fosters reciprocity, generosity, and a sense that one is an important part of a larger whole. Thus, gratitude for one’s good fortune can lead to a sense of satisfaction from being helpful or generous—regardless of whether that good deed is common knowledge or results in some sort of reciprocal gain.

How to Cultivate Gratitude?

  • Keep a journal. Research has found that daily or weekly journaling increases feelings of gratitude. Journaling is also associated with fewer health complaints, reduced envy, a more positive attitude in general, and feeling more spiritually connected. Those who engaged in this practice also got more exercise and viewed their families more positively.
  • Practice mindfulness. This anchors one in the present moment, fosters a nonjudgmental stance, and can help one to notice what simply is—the easy, the challenging, and the neutral—rather than focusing solely on what is hard.
  • Guided imagery or self-hypnosis can be used to help refocus on everyday blessings and shrink negative internal images down to size. Additionally, these tools have been shown to help in the management of unpleasant bodily sensations (pain, nausea, etc.) and emotions.
  • Do a good deed every day. Doing so can shift our attention away from what is stressful or unpleasant and remind us that we can be a force for positive change. If we are fortunate, the desire to do good can be contagious. And for this we can be very grateful indeed.

Reference:

Emmons, R. A., and Mishra, A. (2011). Why Gratitude Enhances Well-Being: What We Know, What We Need to Know. In Kennon M. Sheldon, Todd B. Kashdan, Michael F. Steger (Eds.), Designing Positive Psychology: Taking Stock and Moving Forward. Oxford University Press.

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The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Bea

    Bea

    June 24th, 2014 at 3:05 PM

    Any time that we focus on the things in our lives that we should be thankful for over the things in our lives that tend to not cause us so much joy, it is bound to bring us a bit more happiness. I am no stranger to that. I have lived my life at times feeling sorry for myself and being regretful about all of the things that I don’t have until the day that I finally woke up and thought that I really have so much more than I ever deserved to have. I have my life, my health, my family and my kids… there is really nothing more than that. To practice being mindful of this has been a constant and sometimes daily struggle, but I think about what life could be without those dear things, and it becomes unimaginable.

  • EmmaLee

    EmmaLee

    June 25th, 2014 at 4:14 AM

    At the encouragement of one of our ministers at church I have begun keeping a journal of gratitude. It helps keep me focused on so much of the good in my life as the world seems to be so consumed with hatred and evil.

    I don’t write every day, but I do often go back and read what I have written in the past, particularly on really hard days, and it helps me regain focus on the important things and help me sweep away much of the bad.

    I have even gottne my daughters to start their own journals too, and I think that for them it has been a real eye opener as well.

  • Traci Stein

    Traci Stein

    June 25th, 2014 at 9:20 AM

    Bea and EmmaLee, thank you for sharing your experiences with gratitude. It truly changes things for the better. And keeping a journal is a wonderful way to note and remember the good things in our lives.

    Be well!

  • serra

    serra

    June 25th, 2014 at 11:37 AM

    I want to be like that patient Rich, able to see all of the good despite the hand that you have been dealt.

  • Melba

    Melba

    June 26th, 2014 at 1:45 PM

    Why is it that so many times, and I include myself in this, we are searching for the easiest answer to our problems and rarely do we think about the simple things that could help us fix them. Or to not even be bothered by them! I think that this is a big part that being grateful for having a great life comes in. We need to think about the many rich and wonderful blessings that have gotten us to this point in our lives, and although it may not feel on the surface that there are beautiful days ahead, if you concentrate on the things that you have and have been given then you can see just how rich that this journey thus far has actually made you. I don’t mean to sugar coat things, but much of our life is all about the attitude with which we approach it — how are you going to approach your own unique challenges today?

  • crystal

    crystal

    June 27th, 2014 at 11:30 AM

    When you can do one good deed each day I think that it helps you then focus on the good that others are then doing for you.
    It takes your mind off of the little things that are bugging you and brings your attention to the equally little things that can make you happy!

  • Andi

    Andi

    June 28th, 2014 at 10:54 AM

    When you have reached that point where you can still see something good in the face of so many trials and tribulations, I would say that you are one truly amazing individual.

  • marilyn

    marilyn

    June 30th, 2014 at 4:37 AM

    I do not wish for my life to be tied up in being ungrateful for so many things. I choose to live my life to the fullest and to try to be so thankful for the good. Not that this in any way erases the bad because it does not, but it helps me stay a little more grounded and focused, more so than I would be if I didn’t try to take more of this attitude.

  • Traci Stein

    Traci Stein

    July 1st, 2014 at 7:10 AM

    Thank you for your thoughtful comments! And please do share this post with others.

    Be well!

  • racquel

    racquel

    August 3rd, 2014 at 5:24 AM

    Thank you for your insightful, touching article. As a therapist, you have just opened another avenue for me how to console, empower, and brighten up my clients’ days. Thank you!
    Racquel

  • Traci Stein

    Traci Stein

    August 4th, 2014 at 6:03 AM

    My pleasure, Racquel. Thanks for your comment, and be well!

  • Joanna

    Joanna

    July 8th, 2015 at 3:57 PM

    Nice and inspiring article to read it reminds us how important is to appreciate simple things in life.

    Nice and inspiring article to read it reminds us to appreciate simple things in life.

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