Do gratitude lists really help improve mental health? As a child, I often felt annoyed when my mom insisted on singing happy songs or made me list things I was thankful for when I woke up feeling grouchy. As an adult, however, I have often found that giving thanks for what I have helps me gain a renewed focus on down days.
Before You Give Thanks
Like many helpful disciplines, the discipline of giving thanks works best if we set some parameters. As any parent probably has observed, insisting on gratitude from a tired, grouchy child first thing in the morning isn’t likely to go well. Maybe your little one is under the weather or feels overwhelmed by everyday stressors. A gratitude list won’t make those feelings or the situation magically disappear. It’s the same in our own lives. When we dread getting out of bed as the alarm rings in the morning, the first thing we need is to acknowledge that dread.
By acknowledging why we don’t feel like giving thanks, we provide grace and forgiveness to ourselves. We also eliminate the guilt that is easy to perpetuate on days when we experience heightened levels of depression or anxiety. By recognizing these feelings of dread or despair, we also give ourselves the opportunity to assess whether or not those feelings are based in reality. If I’m dreading the day because of an upcoming meeting, I can alleviate anxiety by thinking logically about that upcoming meeting: Perhaps I am feeling uncomfortable because, in the past, similar meetings have gone poorly, but I can also recognize that this meeting will be different because I had the time to properly prepare for the meeting.
Once we’ve explored, briefly, the reasons we may not feel like giving thanks, it’s important to be thankful anyway. Keep expectations realistic. If your goal is to list five things to be grateful for every day, it is okay for some of your lists to repeat items from previous days. The point is to make a habit of seeking those positive things. As you continue the discipline of making a daily gratitude list, you will find yourself being spontaneously grateful more often. For example, I recently began the discipline of listing ten things I’m grateful for every day. After about five days, I found myself saying aloud, “I’m thankful.” when something positive happened.
Replacing Automatic Negative Thoughts
In therapy, we talk a lot about ANTs—automatic negative thoughts. Often we spend huge amounts of time resisting these negatives without giving ourselves something to replace them. Gratitude is a great replacement. In my own life, I have worked for many years to recognize, resist and replace ANTs, but I’ve been most successful in eliminating them when I focus on gratitude. This doesn’t mean I ignore difficulties. It means I recognize them and then shift my focus. Yes, I am tired today. No, I don’t like being stuck in the house when I would rather be teaching Sustainable Movement classes in person. But since I am stuck at home, I am grateful that I can teach classes online. Once I acknowledge the sadness, I can also acknowledge what I have that makes the difficulty manageable.
An attitude of gratitude absolutely does make a difference. Finding reasons for thanksgiving helps to shift our focus from troubles to solutions. Next time you wake up overwhelmed by troubles, acknowledge their existence. Then give thanks that you have access to solutions, whether or not you can see them. And keep in mind other times when struggles overwhelmed you but the right solution helped you overcome. Gratitude takes practice, but as you make a habit of giving thanks, you’ll find yourself replacing ANTs with APTs—automatic positive thoughts.