Today’s post by Dr. Daniel Tomasulo on PsychCentral recounts how he had alleviated his depressive states 25 years ago by learning to practice gratitude on an ongoing basis. Upon waking, Dr. Dan considers all the people, circumstances and objects in his life that he’s thankful for (Tomasulo). This has conditioned his mind to focus on the positive, and this “gratitude practice” has become habitual, helping to begin the day with a sense of tranquility and thanksgiving, instead of anxiety and dread. Feeling gratitude concentrates the mind on the present — focusing on what is instead of what might be.
Definition of Terms
Gratitude, as defined by the Random House Dictionary, is “the quality or feeling of being grateful or thankful,” while Robert A. Emmons and Michael E. McCullough, editors of the collection The Psychology of Gratitude by Oxford University Press, elaborate:
[Gratitude is] a felt sense of wonder, thankfulness and appreciation for life. It can be expressed to others, as well as impersonal (nature) or nonhuman sources.
Interestingly, “gratitude” and “grace” both stem from the same Latin word — gratus — meaning “pleasing and agreeable”. The antonyms of gratitude are: neglect, disregard, dishonour, resentment. In effect, when we are on the opposite spectrum of gratitude, we are neglecting something important, even dishonouring life.
Practicing gratitude is not something that you just do once and expect immediate and lasting results. Culturally, we are more inclined towards negativity, towards focusing on problems that need fixing, instead of rejoicing in what has been done and in what is. For this reason, a thankful heart and mind do not tend to come naturally to us (there are surely exceptions!). Practicing gratitude requires daily attention and focus until it becomes a pattern.
Slowly but surely, your mindset will change, and gratitude will come as easily as breathing on a cool, crisp day.
Gratitude & Relationships
In 2004, Emmons and McCullough published the aforementioned collection of essays written by leading academics, representing the fields of psychology, philosophy, history, biology, anthropology, and more. This collection, entitled The Psychology of Gratitude, clearly depicts how important and NECESSARY gratitude has become in our society, and displays the increasing multidisciplinary attention it has been receiving. Many academic and medical studies have already been published regarding gratitude and gratitude’s effects on the body, mind, and emotions; and this trend continues. A whole field of psychology has developed out of this inclination, called positive psychology.
In the chapter entitled “The Blessings of Gratitude” from The Psychology of Gratitude, Robert C. Roberts states that a grateful individual is far more likely to be involved in relationships of friendly and affectionate reciprocity, whereas habitual emotions of resentment and bitterness bind a person to hostile and potentially damaging relationships (whether romantic or otherwise) (Emmons 68). We are able to see reality more clearly when we live with gratitude because we are concentrated more fully on the moment at hand. Worries from the past and anxiety about the future do not have the same effect on someone who is focused on the now. In relationships with others, this translates as being able to tell what behaviours and states of mind are healthy for us and which ones are detrimental.
Living in a state of gratitude both allows us to see ourselves clearly and also directs attention away from ourselves and our egos (183). Unhealthy preoccupation with our egos can lead to negative interpersonal decisions, drawing and binding others to ourselves that are similarly self-obsessed. In recent studies, self-obsession and ego-preoccupation have been shown to be related to negative mindstates, as well as depression and/or depressive episodes (ibid). One might believe that being obsessed with themselves is healthy, that they’re merely looking out for themselves. In reality — especially in the long term — the opposite is true.
The Grateful Mindset
In the chapter titled “Gratitude and Subjective Well-Being”, Philip C. Watkins explains that demographics are highly irrelevant when it comes to receiving positive benefits from a practice of gratitude (Emmons 169). No matter who you are or where you come from, the more grateful you are, the more often you’re able to express deep satisfaction with your life. An ongoing practice of gratitude produces positive mindsets and leads to sustained mood improvement.
How does gratitude do this? There are many reasons, but we’ll focus on a couple. Watkins states that practicing gratitude takes our attention away from making social comparisons that lead to feelings of lack and deprivation. Consider the difference between waking up and instantly worrying about whether or not you’ll get a promotion like your best friend, or whether you’ll be able to remodel your home like most of the people on your street, versus waking up and concentrating on all the stellar circumstances you’re in and how truly amazing your loved-ones are. One thankful thought leads to another and another, and so on. You’ll find there’s no end to what can fill you with gratitude.
Feeling gratitude and inviting a positive outlook into your life does not mean ignoring or repressing darkness and the negative. Balance is always best, and negative circumstances will always demand responsible and reasonable attention. Practicing gratitude, however, allows the grateful person to find the positives even during unpleasant circumstances. Potentially traumatic situations can be navigated more thoughtfully and with greater care, consideration, and focus (176-179).
Additionally, practicing gratitude has been shown many times to prevent depressive episodes (182). Intense stress is a major precursor to depressive episodes and dysphoria, but by turning the attention away from feelings of lack, the grateful person is much more capable of bypassing stress or avoiding it altogether. In this way, depressive states are lampooned before they take root.
The Physiology of Gratitude
Here are some of the physiological effects of practicing gratitude (Emmons 231-232):
- deep sense of peace and internal balance; harmony as inner conflicts dissolve
- increased vitality
- heightened perception and sensation
- heightened creativity
- improvement in decision-making
- sense of connectedness and fulfillment
- increased longevity
- increased cognitive flexibility (necessary for creativity)
- better ability to solve problems
- better overall emotional and physical wellbeing
In the chapter titled “The Psychophysiology of Appreciation”, Rollin McCraty and Doc Childre explain that unmanaged negative and emotional processing drain vital energy from our physiological energy reserves (Emmons 242). Bitterness, resentment and negativity bring us down by damaging the body’s inherent capacity for self-healing and regeneration. This loss of vital energy often coincides with the on-start or aggravation of many health problems and disorders (246). Gratitude and other positive mindsets, on the other hand, help create an internal environment conducive to physical and emotional regeneration…in other words — HEALING.
25 years later, Dr. Dan continues to wake up in gratitude. Before jumping out of bed, he considers the previous day. He reviews the events and interactions of that day and gives thanks to the things normally taken for granted. To whom or what do you direct this gratitude? That will depend on your belief system. To God/dess, to the Universe, to your Deepest Self… It’s up to you.
© Kristen Michelle Håvet 2010
Emmons, Robert A. and McCullough, Michael E. The Psychology of Gratitude. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Tomasulo, Daniel. “Gratitude, Grace and Granola.” PsychCentral. 2010.
(image via byshepherd)