Packaged up in savory smells, crisp autumn air and bright orange pumpkins, gratefulness is where we turn our attentions as Thanksgiving approaches. Gratefulness is good, and it’s good for you! Yet, there can be a rub.
First, the good news. Practicing gratefulness broadens our attention to realities beyond ourselves.
By purposefully pausing to notice the larger world around us, and not being caught up so much in our day-to-day, we see how small we are in the vastness of the universe. We’re humbled as we come face-to-face with our own limitations. We notice we’re wired to rely on one another, despite the self-sufficiency myth that pervades our culture – robbing us of our human connection with one another.
Gratefulness reveals the web of our interconnection, where we’re both the givers and receivers of life. We can acknowledge life’s goodness. We know that life’s a gift to be grateful for not a right to be claimed. And, its with gratitude we can transform the toxicity of negative experiences and emotions into the grist of growth.
Years of research tells us there are many benefits to practicing gratefulness, including being:
- Able to more easily increase our capacity for empathy
- More engaging and more forgiving of ourselves and others
- Fully alert, alive, and awake!
- Capable of experiencing more joy and pleasure
- Better at perspective taking, and being nonjudgmental of others
- Healthier — and having better sleep and concentration
- More stress resilient
So, yes, gratefulness is good. Yet, there can be a rub.
But, I don’t feel grateful!
So what are we to do when we don’t feel grateful at all, because
- We received a challenging health diagnosis?
- We’re grieving?
- One of the kids is in trouble?
- We’re in a draining work situation?
- Our relationship is straining under the weight of expectation or worse?
- Simply – we’re suffering?
So really, you’re not only not feeling grateful, but confused and perplexed, irritated or resentful, scared and unsure what to do. On top of that, you might feel the tension of expectation that you should feel grateful that things aren’t worse! Yuck!
If you’re troubled by a current challenge to your gratitude, or a past memory of an unpleasant experience, you might consider recasting in the language of thankfulness. Growing research reveals how grateful recasting works to shift our emotional response.
Three groups of participants in a study conducted at Eastern Washington University, were randomly assigned to first recall, then write about an unpleasant memory—some sort o a loss, a betrayal, victimization, or some other upsettling experience.
The first group wrote about topics unrelated to their memory for 20 minutes. The second wrote in detail about their unpleasant memory, while the third group was directed to focus on the positive aspects of a difficult experience that might give rise to gratitude. That is, to mine the gold of the difficulty.
Can you guess the results?
Results from the third group revealed more closure and less unpleasant emotional impact than those participants who just wrote about the experience without the gratitude prompt to see ways it might be redeemed with gratitude.
Those who found reasons to be grateful demonstrated fewer intrusive memories and less ruminating about why it happened, if they caused it, or if it could have been prevented. Viewing difficult situations with gratefulness, as observed here, can help us heal troubling memories and cope with current challenges. In a sense – to redeem them – a result echoed in many other studies.
Let’s Recast Together
Take a few moments here to practice grateful recasting for yourself. Bring to mind a small to medium situation that you experience as annoying, painful or sad. Allow yourself to bring it into living color with all the people, details, feelings in bold relief. Feel into it (even, and especially if you don’t want to—no more than 8-10 seconds).
Then notice, as in the third group above, what you have to be grateful for from this experience, using some of the questions below to assist you. Take your time here.
- What lessons did the experience teach me?
- Can I find ways to be thankful for what happened to me now even though I was not at the time it happened?
- What ability did the experience draw out of me that surprised me?
- How am I now more the person I want to be because of it?
- Have my negative feelings about the experience limited or prevented my ability to feel gratitude in the time since it occurred?
Again, take your time to be with the experience, and be on purpose. (It’s normal to not want to do this, just like you don’t want to go to the dentist either. Hang in there.)
Jot down a few notes over 5-7 minutes, noting what seems essential and worth remembering. Observe your mood and your energy now.