Gratitude: The Good and The Bad

I think we can all agree that 2020 was a rough year. I experienced some of the biggest changes of my life. At the end of 2019, I was offered the opportunity to move across the country and take over management of a new facility within my company. This was a major opportunity for my wife and I, and we couldn’t say no. But it meant leaving behind our families, friends, and many of the activities that fill our free time. My wife and I were both born and raised in Washington state, part of the beautiful Pacific Northwest, and the position required us to relocate to Indianapolis, Indiana.

Decatur Island, San Juan Islands, Washington State

I grew up in the mountains, and mountain culture is a major part of my life. Hiking, camping, mountain biking, snowboarding, and backpacking have been the focal point of my personal life for as long as I can remember. My wife and I share a passion for the outdoors that has bonded us to each other, our community, and the land in which we spend so much time. The previous eight years we had lived and worked in Bellingham, Washington. Bellingham is a beautiful city, situated between Bellingham Bay in the Puget Sound and the snowcapped North Cascades mountain range. On one side, the sun sets over the San Juan Islands. On the other, the sun rises over the 10,000 foot Mount Baker, a “dormant” volcano. From the mountains to the sea, we spent our time on trails winding through alpine wildflower fields, canoeing, camping on the beach, or meeting friends for a beer a the numerous locally owned breweries Bellingham is famous for.

Bellingham, Washington. Mt Baker overlooking Bellingham Bay. Photo from https://cob.org/wp-content/uploads/p904048-visiting-1208×800.jpg

My best friend and college roommate married my wife’s best friend and college roommate, making us inseparable. Three months prior to being offered the position in Indiana, my wife and I had purchased the house literally right next door to our two best friends. Our dogs would run up and down the fence together when we weren’t sitting in one of our back yards together, having wine and watching the sunset. We had built an amazing life surrounded by the people and places that brought us joy. But career opportunities do not come around all that often. We knew that moving was best for our futures. But that meant leaving the people and places that fill our souls.

Squamish, British Columbia, Canada. Only a two hour drive from Bellingham.

Life is a grand adventure. We packed up and arrived in Indianapolis just before New Years Eve; 2019 turning to 2020. I was terrified to be away from the mountains and all of the activities I enjoyed, but living in a new part of the country would be exciting! New places to explore, people to meet, and plans to make the best of the opportunity. Before leaving, we already had plans going well into the year; numerous friends and family members flying out to see us, exploring all of the states surrounding Indiana, flying back home at least twice for weddings, and making new friends in our new city. The first three months were hard, but also amazing. We started going to fun new bars and restaurants. My wife’s parents both stayed with us. We visited family in Chicago, now only a three hour drive away. And, we had fun plans every couple of weeks for the foreseeable future. Then COVID picked up steam.

At first, I convinced myself we would have a few hard months laying low and isolating before COVID would end. Plans were pushed back, but I was sure that summer would bring things back to normal. As we all know now, that didn’t happen. The easy transition to life across the country we had planned slowly slipped away. Friends and family had to cancel their trips to visit. The weddings we were flying home for, giving us the chance to see everyone, were delayed or cancelled. The fun weekend getaways were put on hold. Even being able to try fun restaurants, go to new museums, and meet new people had to stop. Everything I was counting on to help buffer the loss of my favorite activities and the distance from friends and family slowly fell away.

As summer went on and COVID got worse, I started to get pretty depressed. I wasn’t doing a good job expressing my negative feelings because I wanted to stay positive. A lot of the stress and sadness sat inside of me, growing as time went on and life was seemingly put on hold. When I hit my low point, I realized that only one thing would help me appreciate the situation: gratitude.

Gratitude for my beautiful wife, my happy dog, my new position in my company, and all of the little things we were doing to stay sane. I started reading a lot more (I have always been a reader, but not being able to leave the house made me REALLY become a reader). I continued to exercise, even though the forms of exercise had changed slightly. Instead of trail running or mountain biking, it meant neighborhood runs with my wife and dog, or early morning kettle bell sessions. We bought a Peloton exercise bike and it filled some of my desire for biking while also providing a community, even if it is virtual. I started to see a therapist to work on getting my feelings out. I started writing to get concepts and ideas from work out of my head.

I realized that my negative feeling came from focusing on everything I had lost or been separated from. Moving and the pandemic changed everything. But rather than look at the opportunities, my mind went towards the things that had been lost. At work, we practice gratitude by having two people share something they are grateful for each morning. I consider myself a grateful person; someone who appreciates the little things in life. But it wasn’t until I had lost some of my gratitude that I really started to study when it meant.

An article posted by Harvard Medical School says: “The word gratitude is derived from the Latin word gratia, which means grace, graciousness, or gratefulness (depending on the context). In some ways gratitude encompasses all of these meanings. Gratitude is a thankful appreciation for what an individual receives, whether tangible or intangible. With gratitude, people acknowledge the goodness in their lives. In the process, people usually recognize that the source of that goodness lies at least partially outside themselves. As a result, gratitude also helps people connect to something larger than themselves as individuals — whether to other people, nature, or a higher power.”1

Gratitude is a powerful practice. Numerous studies show how gratitude, or the lack of it, affects people. Joshua Brown, Ph.D, and Joel Wong, Ph.D write that “most research studies on gratitude have been conducted with well-functioning people.”2 But they wanted to know how beneficial gratitude was for people struggling with mental health. Brown and Wong “set out to address these questions in a recent research study involving nearly 300 adults, mostly college students who were seeking mental health counseling at a university.”2 The majority of their participants were struggling with issues related to depression and anxiety.

The study separated the participants into three groups. “Although all three groups received counseling services, the first group was also instructed to write one letter of gratitude to another person each week for three weeks, whereas the second group was asked to write about their deepest thoughts and feelings about negative experiences. The third group did not do any writing activity,” write Brown and Wong.

Participants in the group that wrote weekly gratitude letters reported “reported significantly better mental health four weeks and 12 weeks after their writing exercise ended.”2 Brown and Wong also “found indications of how gratitude might actually work on our minds and bodies.” The gratitude letters contained a higher percentage of positive emotion words and a lower percentage of negative emotion words, but Brown and Wong noticed the greatest change in mental health not when people used more positive words, but when they used less negative words. “Perhaps this suggests that gratitude letter writing produces better mental health by shifting one’s attention away from toxic emotions, such as resentment and envy,” say Brown and Wong.2

Practicing gratitude helps even if you do not share that gratitude with the person you are thinking about. Only 23 percent of the gratitude letter participants actually sent the letters. “But the mere act of writing the letter can help you appreciate the people in your life and shift your focus away from negative feelings and thoughts,” Brown and Wong discovered.

Just sitting and thinking about the people, places, and things you are grateful for has huge benefits. But you won’t feel better overnight. After one week, there was no difference in mental health between the three groups. But after four weeks, participants in the gratitude group reported better mental health. Interestingly, the difference in mental health became even greater twelve weeks after the writing activities. Brown and Wong concluded that “If you participate in a gratitude writing activity, don’t be too surprised if you don’t feel dramatically better immediately after the writing. Be patient and remember that the benefits of gratitude might take time to kick in.”2 If you practice gratitude often, however, gratitude can have lasting impacts on the brain.

Derrick Carpenter, MAPP (Master of Applied Positive Psychology), says “The best way to reap the benefits of gratitude is to notice new things you’re grateful for every day.” And get specific. “Just writing “I’m grateful for my family” week after week doesn’t keep your brain on alert for fresh grateful moments. Get specific by writing “Today my husband gave me a shoulder rub when he knew I was really stressed” or “My sister invited me over for dinner so I didn’t have to cook after a long day.” And be sure to stretch yourself beyond the great stuff right in front of you,” writes Carpenter.3 When you open your eyes to all of the great things right in front of your face, you actually start to notice more of them. This creates a snowball effect, where you actually start becoming even more grateful because of your initial investment in practicing gratitude. It is like when your friend buys a new car you have never heard of, but then you start seeing that car everywhere. There are hundreds of things to be grateful for right in front of you, but you won’t notice them until you program your brain to see them.

COVID is still hard. My wife and I are currently still isolated most of the time. Some days I just want to get out of the house and see people. But my overall outlook has changed. I am trying to be more specific with my gratitude. I notice the little things more often, and then realize even more little things that I am grateful for.

Getting specific has even more benefits. When talking with my therapist, I noticed that I would disregard my own negative emotions because someone else, somewhere else has greater problems than me. For example, I would be stressed about COVID lockdown, but rather than express those negative emotions I would think about how there are people in other countries starving. Rather than expressing gratitude, I was using gratitude to make my own feelings seem insignificant. Instead of expressing those feelings, I was bottling them up because I felt stupid complaining about not being able to see friends when there are homeless people sleeping under the overpass down the street from my house.

Conor Barnes writes something in a blog post that perfectly reflects this negative gratitude. Barnes writes “If other people having it worse than you means you can’t be sad, then other people having it better than you would mean you can’t be happy. Feel what you feel.”4 It is okay to feel bad even though others have it worse than you. Be true to your feelings.

Psychotherapist and international bestselling mental strength author Amy Morin writes that “gratitude may be one of the most overlooked tools that we all have access to every day. Cultivating gratitude doesn’t cost any money and it certainly doesn’t take much time, but the benefits are enormous.”5 Gratitude is completely free. Anyone, anywhere, at any time can practice gratitude. You don’t need to buy something, eat something, or go somewhere else to feel better.

When I started to focus on all of the good things in my life, rather than the stuff I was missing or away from, I started feeling less depressed. COVID still sucks. Being away from the people and place I love isn’t always fun. But there is a hell of a lot more to be happy about than to be sad about. The more I focus on the good, the more good I see; the more good I see, the more things I have to be grateful for. And if I am really having a hard day, I just think about how good it will feel when I see all of the people I have been missing, visit the places that are important to me, or go on a new adventure to somewhere different. Whatever you are looking for you will find. Make sure you are looking for something good.

“We all have the ability and opportunity to cultivate gratitude. Simply take a few moments to focus on all that you have – rather than complain about all the things you think you deserve.  Developing an “attitude of gratitude” is one of the simplest ways to improve your satisfaction with life,” writes Amy Morin.5

Let’s keep the conversation going. Please like, share, or comment.

-Tyson Simmons

Sources

  1. Giving thanks can make you happier, Published: November, 2011, https://www.health.harvard.edu/healthbeat/giving-thanks-can-make-you-happier
  2. How Gratitude Changes You and Your Brain, BY JOSHUA BROWN, JOEL WONG, JUNE 6, 2017, https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/how_gratitude_changes_you_and_your_brain
  3. The Science Behind Gratitude (and How It Can Change Your Life), By Derrick Carpenter, https://www.happify.com/hd/the-science-behind-gratitude/
  4. 100 Tips For A Better Life, by Conor Barnes, December 22, 2020, https://ideopunk.com/blog/tipsforabetterlife
  5. 7 Scientifically Proven Benefits Of Gratitude That Will Motivate You To Give Thanks Year-Round, by Amy Morin, Nov 23, 2014, https://www.forbes.com/sites/amymorin/2014/11/23/7-scientifically-proven-benefits-of-gratitude-that-will-motivate-you-to-give-thanks-year-round/?sh=67803793183c
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One thought on “Gratitude: The Good and The Bad

  1. Great post Tyson. I currently have a tab open on my desktop titled “What is gratitude and why is it so important?” https://positivepsychology.com/gratitude-appreciation/ I guess our personal exploration is on a similar path, although you articulate the subject and associated feelings so much better than I would. I too have been trying to be honest with myself about acknowledging some feelings of sadness even though I have so much to be thankful for, inlcuding you. Have a wonderful weekend.

    Like

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