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Cultivating Gratitude When Life Sucks

I know, I know…if you see another post about having gratitude you are going to throw up.

I get it. We’re inundated by well-meaning advice-givers telling us to be thankful. And sometimes it can feel as if we are being accused of being UNGRATEFUL (which makes these articles even more annoying). 

It’s easy to feel defensive about gratitude. 

Most of us are taught from a young age to say please and thank you; expressing gratitude is practically a milestone of development (crawl, walk, say thank you). So, when we hear people telling us to “be grateful” it can seem like there is a sinister insinuation beneath the phrase; perhaps the subtext (“be grateful, you spoiled brat.”)

So, it makes sense that we are defensive about gratitude, because we’ve always been told how important it is. But, when life sucks, we need gratitude the most. Not because we “should” be grateful or anything else related to proper manners, but because it makes us feel better to do so. 

So, What Can Gratitude Do for Me?

Cultivating internal gratitude is important because of what it gives us in return. When we pay attention to what we are thankful for, we shift our focus (and ultimately, our energy) onto positive aspects of life. As counterintuitive as it may seem, paying attention to the positive aspects of our lives during misery can make us feel better. 

A focus on gratitude serves as a reminder that while some things are dreadful, other parts of our lives are pretty decent. 

If we stay mired in misery, and forget to think about the good parts, it reinforces the focus; it is a type of attentional bias. Like when you buy a blue sedan and suddenly while you are looking for it in the parking lot there are roughly three zillion similar blue cars. 

You are noticing all the blue cars because that is what you are looking for; it’s what you are focusing on because it is relevant to you at this time in your life. We may not notice the other vehicles in the parking lot as much, because they’re not blue cars, and that is what you are paying attention to in that moment. 

It’s so easy to allow attentional bias to hijack our focus, and in doing so, we overlook the yellow VW Bug, the red Prius and the other assorted vehicles in the lot. 

Gratitude helps us see the other cars. Our brains are hardwired to look for patterns. We try to make sense of things in our world. These subconscious skills can be self-limiting at times, especially if we let them run amuck for too long. 

Gratitude can serve as a way to expand our focus; to see the ENTIRE parking lot of cars, not just the blue sedans. In this way, getting in touch with our gratitude acts as a brain-training exercise and helps us expand our focus.

Ways to Find Gratitude During Difficult Times

Cultivating gratitude doesn’t require grand gestures. And that’s good, since life can be difficult enough without adding in extra tasks. We have established that you are already grateful; the only thing you need to do is allow for it to be present in your conscious mind. 

  • Make it a daily habit. 

Set a reminder in your phone or on your AI device for a certain time of day. When the reminder alerts you, take a moment to think of a few things you are thankful for in your life.

  • Do something nice for yourself. 

If you are struggling to focus on things you are grateful for, this may be an indication that you are too far removed from self-care at this time. Maybe what you need right now is to create something for yourself to be grateful for in this moment. 

Do something you enjoy, treat yourself to a massage or a dessert you especially love. While you are in that moment, let yourself absorb the joy of the experience with each of your senses as a form of gratitude.

  • Use social media. 

You’ve seen the November posts on social media, when people post something they are grateful for each day in recognition of Thanksgiving. 

The act of participating in this way may help establish a habit for thinking of something on a daily basis for which to experience gratitude. The external “accountability” of doing it on social media may also help you follow through.

  • One-word challenge. 

Try a one-word gratitude challenge for a week, in which you identify something you are thankful for using only one word. It can be a word that encapsulates a concept in your life, such as “love” or a word that names something tangible that you are thankful for, such as “coffee” or “mystery novels” (ok, I cheated, but you get it). 

  • Use the word “and.” 

During periods of difficulty, it can be tempting to stay focused on the things that are going wrong and exclude what is going well. Try to combat this polarity in thinking by including the word “and” in your vocabulary. 

“I am having a hard time at work and I am grateful for my determination to keep on going.” “I’m sick of the pandemic precautions and I am thankful that I have the knowledge of how to keep myself safe from the illness.”

Even when you are up against it and life is hurling negativity your way, recognizing your inner gratitude can be a simple way to pull your focus toward the better parts of your life. The things we focus on tend to have a magnetic pull, and if we use this to our advantage it can bring joy even during tough times.

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