“He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has.” — Epictetus
When I began my academic career and clinical practice, I would wake up every morning with a feeling of dread. The heaviness and ache on my chest and in my mind, the struggle to attack the day, was oppressive and demoralizing. This crush of morning depression weakened me so much, I was worn out even before the tsunami of “to do” engulfed me.
Then one of my 12-step patients came back from a retreat marveling at how she was able to break this lifelong struggle she had in the morning, this heaviness and burdensome dread she’d wrestled with throughout her adult life. She was visibly more energized and jubilant. She had my attention.
“Tell me more,” I asked, as interested in her relief as I was in my own.
“Gratitude,” was all she said.
“Gratitude?” I echoed.
“Yes. I learned the power and grace that gratitude can bring.”
She explained that the retreat focused on being ever-present with your gratitude as a way of coping with the crush of the day, and the tendency to see only the problems.
“Every morning I review the past day, giving thanks to the things in my life that I often take for granted,” she offered.
“What kind of things?” I said, pen in hand.
“Simple things: I ate well, the weather allowed me to take a walk at lunchtime, my son was worried about his math test, but he got a B and was happy. Little things.”
“And this helped you?”
“Immediately,” she said with a smile. “Somehow the chain of crazy dread that clobbered me the minute I woke up disappeared. I did it every day of the retreat. I feel changed.”
I decided to give it a try. The moment I awoke with my trepidations I began an internal review of the past day. I simply stayed in bed and allowed myself to wallow in gratitude rather than the oppressive feelings.
That was nearly 25 years ago and I have used that simple shift countless times. It worked so well I didn’t question it. But a few years ago psychologists actually began to study such phenomena.
One piece of research directly looked at gratitude and well-being. The conclusion of this study by Robert A. Emmons & Michael E. McCullough (published in the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2003) had some impressive results: A conscious focus on gratitude had clear emotional, physical, and interpersonal benefits.
Emmons and McCullough studied the simple method of being grateful for what you have in your life. It’s not about the miracle of being cured from cancer, or getting the big promotion. It’s about the simple day-to-day awareness that we tend to overlook such as having good health, a job, or a good friend. The aim is to focus on what has happened instead of what might happen. It appears that once we do this there is a shift in both our perception and our physical well-being.
The researchers found some important changes in perception. First, those who wrote down their gratitude rated their life more favorably on the whole. They also had more positive expectations for the coming week.
Think about that. One brief intervention not only restructured how participants remember the past, but also offered a hopeful outlook for the future.
Emmons and McCullough also demonstrated that gratitude had a direct impact on health. The participants had fewer headaches, stomachaches, chest pains, skin problems, cold symptoms, sore muscles and the like, and they also spent more time exercising. Acknowledging and savoring the good in our life seems critical in the care and feeding of our well-being.
Doesn’t that sound like something you would like to do? Oh, and did I mention you can do this yourself for free? So do it already. Make a mental or written gratitude list daily. I do mine during breakfast (hence the title) but feel free to experiment. When times are difficult I throw in a bonus session in the evening. (No one has ever overdosed on gratitude.) Cultivate the habit of being grateful, positively framing your day. This has the potential to not only help you feel better about your past, but see the positive in front of you.
So, how much gratitude you got? If you’d like to find out go over to Dr. Seligman’s Authentic Happiness website. Just register (for free) and click on the gratitude questionnaire. This will quickly show see how much gratitude you have in your life. If you’re anything like me, you’ll probably find there is always room for a little more.
Wishing you patience and peace,