No one likes to be told, “But you have so much to be thankful for – why are you depressed?” In the midst of the dark years of teenage-hood, the last thing I wanted to practice was gratitude. Life sucked! People needed to recognize how much it sucked!
But somewhere on that dark path, I decided to give it a go.
I started by voicing my thankfulness for small things – like that I had a warm bed to sleep in and that my parents let me paint my room bright yellow. Spending time with my dogs and cats made me thankful that they warmed me up at night. The summer days where I would let the warm sun lull me to sleep while I baked to a crisp, are still some of my favorite memories.
(I live in Canada, so warmth was definitely something to be thankful for).
This is my story, and some paths are easier to walk than others. Overall, I recognize (and am grateful) that my path was not as dark as it seemed at the time. Some of you reading this may be facing challenges I have never had to experience.
But, it is important to recognize that practicing gratitude has life saving properties.
Gratitude Before Attitude
As a teenager, I did not want to be told I should be thankful for what I had. However, psychological studies show a strong correlation between practicing thankfulness and improving mental health.
Shakerifard and colleagues taught a group of students how to practice gratitude throughout the year. Practicing thankfulness improved positivity and decreased negativity in students’ attitudes. This in turn improved overall wellness throughout the school year, and likely helped improve grades and performance.
But this isn’t the only study telling us to be more grateful for what we have.
Another study looked at the value of gratitude on the quality of life in seniors. Valikhani and colleagues found that gratitude increased quality of life, and decreased mental illness and perceived stress. Therefore, practicing gratitude increases positivity AND lessens stress while improving mental health.
How to be Grateful When Everything Sucks
This is the hard part. Yes, we know that saying thank you is good for our mental health. We also know that brussels sprouts have a lot of important nutrients and vitamins. That doesn’t mean I’m going to eat an entire plate of brussels sprouts (unless of course they’re slathered in a cheese sauce – check out my article on Barry Glassner and the importance of enjoying your food).
Like any wellness exercise – from working out to eating more vegetables – it takes time to learn how to practice gratitude effectively.
In my personal journey, nature was essential to becoming a thankful person. I would camp, and smell how fresh the air was in the mountains. I would gaze up at those mountains, and find myself thinking about how amazingly lucky I was to see them up close.
By opening these doors with something that was easy to be grateful for, it was easier to be thankful for other parts of my life. Sure, I didn’t always get along with my parents, but they made an effort to cheer me on at every sports game. Yes, there were times I could have ripped my brother’s head off – but he was also really supportive of my creative writing.
In practicing gratitude, I was able to identify things I wasn’t grateful for too. If a friend shared a secret, I realized that they were not a supportive friend. When I grew more interested in school than sports, I could articulate why I wanted to quit the basketball team. Practicing gratitude is integral to setting boundaries, and maintaining them.
Three Easy Steps
So how can you do it? How can you become a gratitude expert, when it’s so much easier to hate the world?
Start small. You don’t have to be grateful for everything. In fact, be discriminate. Yes, it’s nice to enjoy the fact that you have a hot dinner every night. But it’s more powerful to be grateful that your mom made lasagna, or your dad took you to McDonalds.
Second, find unexpected things to be grateful for. I am not grateful for COVID-19, but I had time I needed to finish my degree on a high note. It is easy to be thankful for life when life is good. Maybe you have straight A’s, or your crush asked you out. You’re happy, and you should be happy!
But life is never all rainbows. Even the good times have dark days. Practicing gratefulness when the world is grey is essential in supporting mental health. Sure, that concert you were excited for got cancelled, but you can still get a croissant at your favorite bakery. You bombed a test – that sucks, but at least your significant other gives really good hugs.
The final step? Don’t be afraid to be grateful for temporary things. This is especially important advice in Canada, where winter lasts half the year. I know a cold snap is coming next week, but I still enjoyed this week’s sunshine.
Life is fluid. It changes faster than we realize, and it’s easy to be scared of change. But just because something is temporary, like a week of warm in a Canadian winter, it doesn’t mean you can’t be thankful for it.
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