In our regular monthly series therapists spill all sorts of secrets, including how they deal with difficult times, their biggest mistakes and key lessons they’ve learned from their clients.
This month, in the spirit of the holiday season, we asked clinicians to share what gratitude means to them and what they’re grateful for, along with their tips for cultivating this practice.
“Gratitude is having the perspective that my entitlements are few and my blessings are great,” said Ryan Howes, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist in Pasadena, Calif. That is, he realizes that he’s not entitled to anything so anything good that happens is simply a bonus.
“I much prefer this perspective, because life becomes a series of unexpected surprises to enjoy and cherish rather than a critical place where I evaluate and measure the fairness of everything coming my way.”
Howes is grateful for everything from his health to his family to his career.
I had a parent who died young, so I’m most grateful just to be alive and healthy. I’m grateful to be in a functional, authentic, and fun marriage where we address problems as they arise. I’m also grateful that my boys are learning to be both confident and kind, with some success. And I’m grateful for a career that presents so many challenges and so much variety. This career fits my personality as someone who needs autonomy, likes to help people, seeks a challenge for my creative side, and enjoys a different experience every day. And a good burger with a beer. I’m definitely grateful for that.
According to clinical psychologist John Duffy, Ph.D, gratitude is vital because it transforms a perspective of scarcity to one of abundance.
“With gratitude, nothing needs to change in the landscape of one’s life. One can feel gracious in wealth or in poverty, in sickness or in health, connected to others or alone. We can always find something to be grateful for.”
Duffy is personally grateful for his health, connection to others, and for the ability to help his clients discover gratitude in their own lives. “There is very little more satisfying to me than that.”
Lea Seigen Shinraku
For psychotherapist Lea Seigen Shinraku, MFT, this quote from Victor Frankl reminds her of the power of gratitude: “Everything can be taken from a [person] but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
She views gratitude as a self-compassionate practice. “Acknowledging and expressing genuine gratitude for what you appreciate in your life is a deeply kind act.”
Shinraku is grateful for the time to reflect on her own and to connect with loved ones. She further noted:
“I feel particularly grateful for the people and experiences, which remind me that it’s OK to not have all the answers, and that I don’t have to pretend to. I’m also grateful to have found work that feels meaningful and congruent with who I am and what I value, and that is helpful to others.”
Psychologist Ari Tuckman, PsyD, defined gratitude as “appreciating the good things in your life — and sometimes even the not so good things that teach valuable lessons.”
He’s grateful for many things. “I feel very lucky in my life. I have certainly worked hard for what I have, but I also recognize that I had great opportunities that not everyone did.”
“I am very grateful for my wife and son and the life that we have together.”
He’s also grateful for his career, clients, the ability to write and publish, and getting invited to speak at cool places.
“First and foremost, I am grateful for my health,” said Bridget Levy, LCPC, director of business development at Urban Balance, a counseling practice in the Chicago area. “As a young girl, I quickly learned that without good health, nothing else matters.”
Similarly, she’s grateful for the health and wellbeing of her loved ones and to live in a society where she has the freedom to live the way she wants. She’s also grateful for her “courageous clients, who entrust me with their most intimate thoughts, feelings and fears.”
Jennifer Kogan, LICSW, a psychotherapist in Washington, D.C., described gratitude as a practice that brings her outside of herself so she feels “more calm, centered and connected.” She views gratitude as a mindfulness and spiritual practice.
Kogan is grateful for “family, my pets, nature, good health, meaningful work and relationships.”
Clinical psychologist Christina Hibbert, PsyD, writes in her book This is How We Grow, “Practicing gratitude reminds us, no matter how dark or cold the skies may be, there is always sunshine within, if we will but look and gratefully see.”
Hibbert is grateful for her husband and six kids, God, faith, wisdom, growth and her family and friends. She’s also grateful for “health and for hope and for goodness and for dreams coming true. I’m grateful for a sense of meaning and purpose in my life, for opportunities to serve and teach and help others.”
“And for so many seemingly small things, I am grateful — for sunsets, hammocks, morning walks, hugs, solitude, connection, laughter. I could go on forever.”
Ideas for Practicing Gratitude
Tuckman suggested writing down three things each day that you’re grateful for, including the “more subtle or different aspects of your life.” This might include anything from a stranger holding the door for you and smiling to your child acting in a kind way, he said. When life feels especially difficult, refer back to your lists, he said.
Levy suggested incorporating gratitude into your daily mindfulness practice. “For example, as you focus your attention to your breath, you are instantly reminded that your body is constantly at work, giving you life. In this way, your breath can be seen as a proxy for your health and thus, allow you to be thankful for your health.”
Some people worry that feeling grateful will trigger tragedy or negativity, Howes said. (It’s the idea of “as soon as I feel good, then the hammer drops,” he said.) They think their pessimism will protect them from getting their high hopes shattered.
Howes reminds his clients that they’re resilient enough to ride life’s inevitable ups and downs. Plus, practicing gratitude can be powerful in surprising ways.
Howes worked with a woman who was a single mother and had just graduated a stressful academic program. Once she graduated she moved her worry to the job market — without celebrating her accomplishment. She told Howes that if she let herself feel proud, something bad would happen, such as not getting a job.
However, she encouraged her son to feel grateful for his achievements. Saying this aloud, Howes said, helped her realize that she was letting a personal superstition sabotage her joy. She also realized, he said, that she’d already overcome many hardships in her life. Not finding a job immediately “wouldn’t be the end of the world.”
According to Howes, “she let herself relax, celebrate, feel gratitude, and she got a job through a connection she made at her graduation party.”