Cultivating Gratitude In Difficult Times

This year has been a roller coaster ride. It began with the pandemic, and the ongoing ripple effects of stress, uncertainty, and loss of normalcy. While also ongoing, the Black Lives Matter movement reached a tipping point after a series of caught on tape incidents and outright and unjust murders. Finally, politics and an election that has much of the country feeling divided. You are not alone if finding things to be grateful for feels nearly impossible, but cultivating gratitude in difficult times provides the hope we need to progress. And still we rise!

Why Being Grateful Helps

When things are going well it is easy to look on the bright side. Being positive when you get a promotion, fall in love, or achieve a goal magnifies the positive and lifts us up even higher. While it may feel impossible after losing your job, a relationship comes to an end, amid financial stress, or when experiencing personal or collective trauma—we have even more to gain from being grateful.

An attitude of gratitude doesn’t just lift you up when all is well, but also when you’re down. It heals, ignites hope, and helps you cope. It also helps to break stress and anxiety-inducing negative thought patterns. Shifting your mindset can even provide the space required to identify healthy next steps. No, being grateful won’t eliminate your source of anxiety and it may not change anything. However, our thoughts are one of the only things we can truly control in life, and research shows that being grateful can:

  • Make you feel happier
  • Reduce stress
  • Improve sleep
  • Improve overall physical and mental health
  • Strengthen our relationships

To learn more about the data behind being grateful, consider reading the work of UC Davis professor of psychology Robert A. Emmons and leading expert on the science of gratitude. The tips below will help you get started.

  1. Identify The Contrast

    We all have people and things we take for granted, that we don’t realize we should be grateful for until something shifts. When life throws us a curveball, use the contrast of what you don’t want—to identify what you do want. Also, to identify what else you can be grateful for that may not currently be top of mind. In tough times, focus on the smallest of things. Even your automatic coffee maker that always has a fresh cup waiting to be poured when you walk in the kitchen each morning. Or your loving spouse who brews it for you.

  2. Start A Gratitude Journal

    Dedicate time each day, either first thing in the morning or before you head to bed to write down 10 things you are grateful for. Yes, you can create a digital gratitude journal, but writing it down increases the sensory experience. The goal is to be specific and try not to repeat things from one day to the next. The more down and out you are feeling, the more difficult this will be—but don’t beat yourself up. Over time, your daily practice will help you “stop and smell the roses” throughout the day as you will actively search for the positive things you can add to your list. Maybe the inspiring article you found on a friend’s Facebook feed, the Zoom call with your BFF who always makes you smile, your precious pet who delivers a daily dose of unconditional love, or the neighborhood group text you joined after social distancing.

  3. Identify Inspirational Sources

    Just like you have a few go-to news sources, you must have a few go-to inspirational sources. This could be a Facebook group, wellness blog, wellness community, or uplifting book. Action For Happiness is a global community that promotes happiness. They have a wealth of resources and a daily calendar that focuses on positive and solution-oriented goals and activities you can achieve each day. With so much time spent at home due to social distancing, we must avoid the temptation to go down the negativity rabbit hole. Yes, we must remain informed—but not inundated. Schedule in 1 to 2 hours per day for traditional new sources (never before bedtime) and invest the rest of your time in inspirational sources.

  4. Reframe What It Means To Be Happy

    Many of us need to reframe what it means to be happy. Some of us struggle to allow happiness when someone we know is suffering or when our community is in distress. Or we put off happiness and say we’ll slow down and allow ourselves to be happy when we achieve a goal. Or we create such a rigid definition of what happiness looks like, we miss out on daily joy. But happiness must not wait.

    Being happy is an emotion that we should not limit, repress, or fake. Instead, make a list of your happiest moments. What you will find, is that many are spontaneous moments that we cannot plan. The funny thing your toddler said, a picturesque sunset, a super cute YouTube video, seeing a loved one after months of social distancing, listening to your favorite music, making time for a hobby, and a series of daily wellness activities. By clearly identifying what makes you happy, you can plan joy-inducing activities in—which will provide more to be grateful for.

  5. Do Something For Someone Else

    The social unrest, politics, and pandemic have left many of us feeling powerless and disconnected. But you are not alone, and you are powerful. Identify ways you can lend a helping hand to someone else. It doesn’t matter how small the action is, it will connect you to others—and make you feel a sense of accomplishment. Here are a few ideas:

    • Reach out to a loved one to let them know what you appreciate most about them
    • Send an email or card to a teacher, coach, or mentor you never thanked for their support
    • Call an at-risk neighbor before your weekly grocery shopping trip to see if you can pick anything up for them
    • Drop off or have a meal delivered to a loved one who is feeling lonely while social distancing
    • Google local and global non-profits to identify ways you can help, in-person or with donations of cash or supplies
    • Take a few extra seconds (or more) and thank essential and non-essential workers you engage with live or virtually
    • Kick your tipping up a notch for those providing essential services
    • Pay it forward to someone you don’t know the next time you are in a coffee shop, or when opportunities arise
  6. Identify The Lessons Learned

    Every challenge we face can teach us a valuable lesson or two. It may take time and space, but consider how each difficult experience shapes you, improves resilience, drew out or developed a skill, or connected you with new people. Sometimes a challenging time will even remove negative people and situations from your life. For example, maybe you were laid off from working in a toxic office environment that you may not have left on your own accord. Again, it may take time to realize the lessons, but they are always there.

Finally, no gratitude practice is complete without self-care. From meditation to massage, aromatherapy, and hemp-derived CBD to calm your mind and body.

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