Gratitude & Grey Skies: Developing a Gratitude Practice in Trying Times
In addition to being a mental health counselor, I’m also an online running coach and create customized training plans for individuals looking to discover their potential through running endeavors. In many ways, there’s a lot of similarity in both coaching and counseling jobs. In both, I am in a relationship with beautiful, imperfect humans who are engaging in soul-searching endeavors.
A few weeks ago, one of the athletes I coach, whom I would describe as an amazing and compassionate woman–she signed up for coaching to prepare for a 50 mile run to raise money for the families she works with in palliative care—wrote to me saying she was having trouble filling out the optional gratitude box we leave at the end of each training week.
My fellow coaches and I leave the gratitude box in our training plans because studies show that practicing gratitude can improve physical performance and psychological health. (I’ll touch on some of these in a bit.)
To paraphrase in my own words, my running client felt like she was bypassing the pain and grief of the families she works with if she just chose to focus on the good. I also got the sense that she was speaking to the pain and grief of life too.
First, how wonderful that she was open enough to share that with me! In our world, that type of vulnerability takes courage.
Second, I’d like to universalize her sentiment. I’m pretty sure we all have days like this, where we question gratitude because there is so much hurt in the world and inside of us. One painful truth of being human is that to be human is to know suffering. What I have found helpful for myself and others is to give ourselves some time to just be with the pain, maybe even for an allotted time, and then start to shift out of that space to a place of gratitude.
But first, let me clarify: Gratitude is not about ignoring the bad and not feeling pain. Finding gratitude and seeing the beauty does not mean overlooking the dark parts and the hardships of life. Truly, gratitude is about feeling it ALL. Gratitude is the acknowledgement of the “and” as well as the “grey”—we don’t have to choose one over the other. In this world, it all exists.
We also need to stop convoluting gratitude with guilt. “There are starving kids in Africa, so be grateful for the dinner you have.” (said by many well-meaning parents) Or “I live in a beautiful mountain town, so I shouldn’t feel anything but happy.” Ummm, no. You are human. But if you are well-off, maybe guilt could be replaced with a responsibility to help those less fortunate.
By choosing to focus on gratitude, we create an energy shift that allows us to become more expansive. It’s like the sky is cloudy and grey, but we choose to hold on to our own light. Asking for help is allowing another person to share some of their light until we can find our own again. For people who are especially empathic and attuned to suffering around them (as well as for anyone living in the Midwest), practicing gratitude can also be an essential survival skill.
Now that we have some understanding of what gratitude is (finding the beauty, love, and joy in all of life and all of its hardships) and what it is not (pretending the world is all puppies* and unicorns**), we can look at some of the research and create our own gratitude practices.
* Studies show that dogs and other pets can decrease feelings of loneliness and anxiety in addition to increase happiness.
**Sometimes I tell my empath clients that they are the unicorns in an emotionally stifled society. In addition to their sensitivity, perhaps gratitude is part of the magic they are able to create.
In one study by Dr. Robert A. Emmons of the University of California, Davis, and Dr. Michael E. McCullough of the University of Miami, participants were divided into three groups, one group writing each week about things they were grateful for, the second writing about daily irritations and things that displeased them, and the third group was writing about events that had affected them. 10 weeks later, those who wrote about gratitude experienced more optimism and felt better about their lives.
With a quick Google search, one will encounter a myriad of articles and research studies that share the benefits of having a regular gratitude practice, which includes better mental health, improved sleep, and increased satisfaction in relationships. Neuroscience tells us that this is, at least in part, because of the increase of “happy hormones” (serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin) are released when we share our appreciations.
The other benefit to this free mood boost is that it doesn’t have to take much time either. Here are a few simple practices you might try:
Keep a gratitude journal: Everyday, write down at least 5 things you are grateful for. Try to make them unique to the day, and take a moment to emotionally connect to each thing you wrote down. I suggest doing this practice either first thing in the morning or each night before you go to bed.
Before a meal: Whether you share your home with your spouse and kids or your dog, take a minute before each meal to share what you are grateful for. This can be a combination of what each person (or animal- yes, I can read my dog’s mind) was grateful for during their day, or around each step that got your food to your plate.
Make it part of your workout: I first incorporated gratitude into my workout when I was volunteer coaching for Girls on the Run, a physical activity-based positive youth development for girls in 3rd-5th grade. As we ran laps, we focused on each letter of the word “gratitude” and thought of one thing we were grateful for. I’ve adapted this slightly on my own and will run/hike grateful-peats up and down Pole Hill every Thanksgiving. For example, if I’m on the letter “A”, I might think of how thankful I am for Australian Shepards and my time with my older sister Amanda (who is now passed—again, we’re not ignoring the hard stuff). On the way down when I’m on “T”, I’ll think of my twin sister, as well as all the trees saved by the firefighters. Sometimes it’s helpful to add in a bit of specificity to create a felt-sense thanks.
Write thank you letters (the old-fashioned way): With a pen and paper, write a thank you letter to someone you appreciate. I’ve done this with friends, coaches, teachers, and my parents. Undoubtedly, you’ll boost their happiness as well as yours.
Despite crossing the threshold into a new year, the frustration and tears of 2020 have not disappeared. For many, that journey has continued into 2021. While I can’t speak for everyone, I know that for me, allowing myself to feel all the pain and sadness of the previous year has allowed me to see even more beauty in the world. Everytime, I crest the hill on 36 heading west up to Estes Park and get my first view of the mountains, I think “I can’t believe how blessed I am to live here” and I am in awe of the awesomeness of Mother Nature. I am also equally touched by the 30 second conversation I have with the cashier at Waste Management, who offers me a kind word and an (eye) smile everytime I go to take in my trash. Who knew throwing out my garbage could be such a gratifying experience?