Leading with Gratitude in the Face of Adversity

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Research suggests that taking a moment to reflect on all of the good things in life can help you cultivate a healthy work life, manage stress and develop deeper connections, especially during times of adversity. What is gratitude? It is the feeling of being thankful and showing appreciativeness. Feelings of gratitude can occur naturally, and other times gratitude is a choice, something we must practice.

It is easy to be grateful when things are going your way — when the weather is beautiful, when you receive an award for something you’ve worked very hard for, or some other great news. But when things aren’t panning out as planned, there is a pandemic, life as we know it has shifted and we’re sitting in discomfort, the negative can easily be all that we see and feel.

Gratitude is a thankful appreciation for what one receives, whether it’s tangible or intangible. With gratitude, we have an opportunity to acknowledge the goodness in life both within and outside of ourselves. As a result, gratitude can help us connect to something larger than ourselves — whether to other people, nature, or a higher power. 

People who practice gratitude report fewer physical symptoms of illness, more optimism, greater goal attainment, decreased anxiety and depression, and many other health benefits. Specifically, practicing gratitude can:

A. Boost your mental health & relieve stress. The regions of the brain associated with gratitude are part of the neural networks that light up when we socialize and experience pleasure. These regions are also heavily connected to the parts of the brain that control basic emotion regulation, such as heart rate, and are associated with stress relief and pain reduction. When we affirm the good things we’ve received and acknowledge the role other people play in providing our lives with goodness, we can receive the benefits of the practice of gratitude. 

B. Helps you accept change. When we are comfortable with the way things already are, it can be difficult to accept when things change—let alone feel grateful for that difference. But when we make it a habit to notice the good change brings, or the “silver lining”, we can become more flexible and accepting.  

If you want to implement the practice of gratitude into your life, here are 5 ways to do so:

1. Keep a Gratitude “Journal”. A gratitude journal is a great tool for increasing your gratitude practice.Whether it’s an actual notebook or in the notes on your phone, the physical act of writing down and recalling moments of gratitude associated with ordinary events, your personal attributes, or valued people in your life gives you the potential to interweave a sustainable theme of gratefulness into your life. Consider three to five things. These things can be small or big, and it’s helpful to get specific. If you’re grateful for your family, or your pet, or your job- what specifically about those things make you feel grateful? Have they done something on your behalf? What do they/it bring to your life that makes you feel good, and happy?  For example:  l am grateful for my dog because after a long day she is always there to greet me and keep me company. Having to walk her 2-3 times a day, even when it’s rainy or cold or dark helps to get me outside for fresh air and get more steps in, too. 

2. Put Things in Perspective. As we know, things won’t always go our way, and gratitude isn’t an emotion that is only reserved for those moments when you get what you want. We can use the power of gratitude to release some of the negative emotions we when we experience a setback. Put things in perspective by remembering that every difficulty carries within it the seeds of an equal or greater benefit. When faced with adversity, ask yourself the following questions:“What can I learn from this?”“How can I benefit from this?”“Is there something about this situation that I can be grateful for?” 

3. Share Your Gratitude with Others. Expressing gratitude can strengthen relationships. These are known as Gratitude Letters. But you don’t always have to write snail mail. You can make a phone call or tell them face-to-face, expressing in detail what they did for you and exactly how it impacted you/your life. It can be an uplifting experience for both involved. So the next time your partner, friend, family member, colleague, a client, a teacher, a coach, etc. does something you appreciate, be sure to let them know.

4. Use Your Senses. Through our senses (our ability to touch, see, smell, taste, and hear), we gain an appreciation for the things around us. “Stop and smell the roses” is one saying that embodies the idea of being mindful. In all of the busy-ness of our lives, or when things feel out of our control, we can take a breath, take a step back, look around us and take note of the great things that are happening that give us reason to be grateful even when we feel like bad things are happening.

5. Make a Vow to Practice Gratitude. Research shows that committing to ones self to perform a behavior increases the likelihood that it will occur. Write your own gratitude vow which could be as simple as “I vow to count my blessings each day,” and post it somewhere where you will be reminded of it every day. If you’re using the journaling tool, choose a time of day when you have several minutes to step outside your life and to reflect.  It may be first thing in the morning, or during lunch, or while commuting, or before bedtime.

6. Go Through the Motions. Grateful motions include smiling, saying thank you, and writing letters of gratitude. By “going through grateful motions,” you’ll trigger the emotion of gratitude more often.

Try it for yourself today! When you have a moment, write down three things you are grateful for and read them back to yourself. For more information about Gratitude, Gratitude Exercises and Gratitude Meditations, visit Mindful.org.

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