Research in positive psychology shows a link between feelings of gratitude and happiness. But what happens when you are feeling too low, too depressed, or just too exhausted to do the mental work of finding things to be grateful for?
That is one of the questions I often ask myself when I am in a low mood, and someone says I should express gratitude for something. I would groan a little (sometimes a lot) and beg the person to leave me be.
But there is an untold story here.
I have been expressing gratitude all my life, saying thanks. I was raised in a Christian household. Giving thanks for what I had was a norm. And my story of thanks was always accompanied by an underlying narrative that I was not worthy of whatever blessing I was thankful for.
In my relationships with my parents and other individuals with power and authority, the sentiment was often the same. I had to be thankful for the necessities of life and the conditions of security I received from them because I was getting it only by their grace. It is little wonder that I grew up with a maladapted sense of what it means to be thankful.
That attitude was the outcome of being taught that something good has happened to me because an external source, divine or otherwise, brought it about. It might have been a fair and applicable understanding of gratitude, but I always disliked the feeling it left me with. It was the feeling that all I have is all I deserve to get, even if what I got was uncomfortable and painful.
The nocebo effect
You can now see why I groan and swear a little each time someone tells me to “be grateful.” We do not internalize feelings of gratitude in the same way. That is why understanding your story and the storytelling process is essential.
The solutions that scientists, psychologists, and practitioners tout are only as good as the person receiving the advice wants them to be. You can think about this as the nocebo effect, a situation where an adverse outcome occurs due to a belief that the intervention will cause harm. If you have a negative anticipation of the outcome, medical science tells us, the therapy is less likely to work.
Repeatedly, we see that the effectiveness of a particular practice or tool comes from the mindset of the tool’s user. Mindsets, however, can often be blocked by destructive stories, and we need to pay keen attention to that. What I learned over time, and only after acknowledging my inner stories about forced gratitude, is how I think about gratitude matters.
For me to see gratitude as a tool for improving my mental well-being, I needed to find my own path to understanding gratitude as a way to counteract my negative thought patterns. In that way, gratitude has come to mean more than a mere appreciation for what I have.
If you are prone to negative rumination like I am, expressing gratitude can be a helpful way to become unstuck, but it takes a lot more than resorting to a mundane journal prompt asking me to list three things I am grateful for. In addition to understanding my triggers and talking out my ruminations (mainly through free writing journaling), thinking about and expressing gratitude has become one of my go-to methods for getting out of that pattern of sad or dark repetitive thoughts. But like all the other techniques for recovering good mental and emotional well-being, thinking and expressing gratitude takes time, effort, and practice.
That is why I developed the Gratitude Challenge. It began in 2020 during the depths of our second and most extended COVID-19 pandemic lockdown. The activities came intuitively at a time when I felt isolated from myself and other people and unable to cope with the work, income, parenting, health, and other challenges that kept rearing their despicable heads.
I knew I needed something to keep me grounded, even though so many things were being lost or taken away during this challenging time. Day by day, I started to collect little fragments of thoughts and images to focus on so that I could tell myself and the people closest to me that there were things to look forward to.
The collection of thoughts made its way into a story I published called What We Found in the Fire. And the practices became a weekly gratitude project. The challenge questions and templates improved with ongoing research. This latest version of the challenge pulls heavily from resources created by Positive Psychology.com.
What is the Gratitude Challenge?
The Gratitude Challenge is now a self-paced, community-centred practice that includes investigating, savouring, and reflecting upon the things you feel most connected with. I host the challenge each August in the Reyou Community.
The challenge flows through four steps, and it spans a four-week period with new prompts and activities made available once a week. The goal of this challenge is to help you become mindful of the values and habits you have that you can be grateful for. By celebrating what is already endowed to you, you can focus your gratitude on your gifts instead of things that happen or flow outside your agency.
Using positive psychology research, the practice concentrates on the benefits of positive thinking, but it also helps to cultivate realistic habits that can lead to overall improvements in mental health and well-being.
There are four steps in the challenge.
Step 1. The Values Challenge – identify your values, reflect on them and use the values to boost your gratitude statements.
Step 2. The Satisfaction Challenge – identify what fuels your decision-making, analyze your options for being happy with 'enough' and express gratitude for what is satisficing for you.
Step 3. The Photo Journal Challenge – identify and take pictures of precious moments worth celebrating, then reflect on them through a gratitude lens.
Step 4. The Awe Journal Challenge – identify moments of awe in your everyday experiences and then reflect on them using a gratitude lens.
Each step ends with a challenge check-in where you get to share your experience with the challenge. Sharing your experience is a chance to process and reflect on the actions and inactions so that you can complete the cycle of learning.
The bottom line:
Gratitude plays an essential role in mental wellness and well-being. Knowing how to find and express gratitude can be challenging if the concept does not resonate with your story.
The Reyou Community’s gratitude challenge is an experiential self-help practice. The overall goal is to help you build mental health skills and coping strategies that can help you overcome feelings of stress, frustration, or anxiety.
You can sign up for the August Gratitude Challenge and experience other Reyou Community benefits by visiting our community page at www.community.reyoumindfulness.com.