How Gratitude Helps Us In Tough Times

Translated by: Zeynep Sen
Edited by: Christine Taylor

Life is ever-changing and fluid. Sometimes it takes us to cloud nine, where we feel utterly carefree and happy. Other times we are bogged down with worries, anxieties, and fears over an array of things. It could be that we find ourselves facing financial burdens that we didn’t expect. Maybe we’re having academic problems and are considering switching majors or even dropping out. It could be that we’ve lost a loved one and are struggling to work through our grief. The point is that whatever we’re experiencing can very easily drag us down, if we let it. It becomes very easy to let our situation define the world around us and how we see it: I’m in deep trouble, we might think. I’m never going to get through this.

The longer we let ourselves give in to these narratives, the worse we’ll feel and the more we’ll generate the same pattern of thoughts. This vicious cycle can paralyze our ability to move forward, make different decisions and view problems and challenges as opportunities. Yet, by actively and consistently practicing gratitude, we can lead happier, calmer lives, even when we face those difficult situations.  

A Light in the Darkness

“Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not, remember that what you have now was once among the things you only hoped for.”

We’re all guilty of doing exactly what the Ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus cautions us against, especially if we’re going through a tough time. We fantasize about having more money, so we can live more comfortably, without worrying about bills. We wish we could afford a tutor, so we could pass those exams. We may dream about having a partner if we’re single.

The list can go on and on. Yet the more we become entrenched in what we don’t have, the more we lose sight of what we do. In worrying about our finances, we forget to be thankful for having a roof over our heads, access to food and clean water, and clothes to keep us comfortable and warm. For those of us students who dread upcoming exams, we forget how lucky we are to be able to get an education. When we’re wishing for a romantic partner and companion, we overlook the friends and family that love and surround us, ready to be there for us when we need them.

Reminding ourselves of what we have to be grateful for, especially when we’re facing difficult times, can help us change our outlook on those specific situations. This mentality can encourage us to see that things are not as dark as we perceive them to be in the moment. We can always find speckles of light that can guide us, give us strength and keep us moving forward.

“Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not, remember that what you have now was once among the things you only hoped for.”

– Epicurus

Adapting to New Circumstances

Human beings are remarkably adaptable creatures. When we encounter a new situation, especially one we perceive as negative, we generally feel resistance toward it. Yet in time, we adapt to it, learn from it, find what contentment we can and look toward a future with hope and optimism. However, this versatility and ability to transform how we view view negative situations takes practice.

Imagine for a moment that you’ve been in an accident. You survived, but your legs had to be amputated. You are facing a reality that’s utterly unfamiliar and terrifying. At first, what happened will seem very unfair to you. You’ll feel angry, upset and afraid. Yet in time, you end up adjusting to this new normal, and all that it brings. In fact, as time goes by, you may experience other positive situations and lessons that you wouldn’t have had otherwise. You may even find happiness and peace of mind in your new lifestyle and daily routine, even if it has challenged you. Humans are incredibly resilient and versatile. It’s incredible to think about the challenges and adversity we have overcome. Role models like Chelsea McClammer serve as a testament to this fact; Chelsea, after losing the use of her legs in a car accident, went on to become the youngest member of the U.S. Paralympics team.

All kinds of people throughout the world overcome all kinds of challenges every day and we can too. Yet one of the most essential steps we must take in order to do this is to first accept the situation we’re in. Once our resistance, rage, and anger subsides, we must pull on our inner strength and lean into the idea of accepting the situation and seeking out gratitude. If we remain stuck, we risk not moving forward in our life and fulfilling our potential.

How Gratitude Cultivates Positive Emotions

Gratitude is appreciating all of the positive and good elements we’ve experienced and continue to experience in our lives. It’s recalling past memories that are truly valuable to us, expressing appreciation for the challenges and triumphs in our past, and being able to see the valuable things that we have in life. Reminding ourselves of such things on a consistent basis cultivates positive emotions, like love, hope, pride, joy, and relief.

The emotions we experience from practicing gratitude can have long-lasting effects, creating thought patterns that help change our outlook on life for the better. Instead of negative thoughts which make everything that’s going badly seem even worse, we’ll train our minds to see the positive in even the darkest of days. To be clear, this does mean that we ignore our problems, or don’t acknowledge feelings of sadness, disappointment and frustration. What it means is that rather than allowing that negative experience to swallow us whole and prevent us from moving forward, we are able to get through that situation knowing that it too shall pass.

Practicing gratitude also reduces the emergence of negative feelings like jealousy, resentment, self-criticism, and frustration. By focusing on the good things that we have or have had in life, we wish less and less for what we don’t have. As we focus less on what we don’t have, emotions like jealousy begin to dissolve. For instance, if we’re looking for a new job, sometimes our immediate reaction to a friend telling us about their new promotion isn’t genuine happiness for them. We may have thoughts fueled by our jealousy, comparing ourselves to them, thinking of reasons why they don’t deserve that. Yet when we focus more and more on our own attributes, achievements, and goals, we are less prone to compare ourselves with others. Thanks to this, we’ll not only have a better relationship with the people we care about, but a healthier one with ourselves.

How Can I Practice Gratitude?

Gratitude is not a knee-jerk reaction for most people. Quite the opposite; gratitude is a skill that we can learn to develop in time and we can only do so with regular practice. Though how do we incorporate gratitude into our daily lives? Writing a simple thank you note to someone who’s done something nice for us can be an excellent way to start. If we don’t have time to write them a note, sending a text message, email or even giving thanks to them internally in our own minds is a good first step. Forcing yourself to think of someone who’s made your life better and easier on a daily basis will help you begin welcoming gratitude into your life.Also, keeping a journal and writing down the things that we’re grateful for, be they from the past or in the present, can help us during our bad days. When you’re going through a challenging moment, you can flip through the notes you’ve written and remind yourself of everything and everyone good in your life.

As this is the month of Gratitude at Meditopia, the team has created a Gratitude series to help members of the community learn more techniques to practice giving thanks and appreciation on a daily basis.

Start your first day of Gratitude meditations today, and give yourself this brief time to mentally go over the things we’re thankful for. It may be difficult at first to uncover those small blessings in life, but the more we dig, the more sources of joy and hope we’ll discover in our everyday lives.  

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