If you have a therapist, if you know a therapist, if you are a therapist…heck, maybe even just if you have heard of therapy-you have probably had a conversation about gratitude. Gratitude, at is very core, refers to the idea that you can acknowledge something in your life that has served a purpose for you. We are often encouraged to try and notice the things that we are grateful for in our lives, particularly in the hard times. I feel really strongly about the fact that gratitude is vastly different than the concept of “find a silver lining.” My personal opinion is that finding a magical silver lining around something awful is bullshit. That is not therapist Jessica speaking, that is normal, everyday Jessica who thinks that there are things out there that just suck. Sometimes, there is not a silver lining. There is not an easy to decipher lesson to learn and we just have to sit in pain because whatever we are going through in that season of life is crappy.
That is not what gratitude is. Gratitude is the ability to notice that, even in the darkest of times, you have the ability to create a sliver of joy-even if it is just for a moment.
For me, it all comes down to the idea that our emotions serve a purpose in our lives. The ability to experience emotions is innate-we are born with it. It is a part of our survival. For example-anxiety exists because it helps to keep us safe from the dangers of the world. Anger exists because it allows us to have the fuel, we need to make the changes that feel unjust. Guilt helps is to modify our behavior so that we are living into our own morals and values. Even shame, which is often the most uncomfortable emotion that we feel, has the function of helping us to live within the social norms of the group we have decided to be a part of. All emotions serve a purpose for us and are a part of the human experience. Where we go wrong is that we focus mostly on the unpleasant feeling emotions.
Unpleasant emotions are just that. Unpleasant. In fact, there are a lot of cases where there is vastly stronger language to identify how much a person hates feeling those unpleasant emotions. So, what do we do? We work really hard to try and feel those emotions less. We distract, we self-soothe, we self-medicate, we cope. A lot of time and energy is spent in therapy deciphering those unpleasant emotions as a means to decrease the intensity at which we feel them. And I think that it is valid and important work to do that. Those emotions are a result of years of experiences and they are there for a reason, whether we like them or not. There is so much value in working to feel your unpleasant emotions less intensely so that you can better tolerate them. I just think that there is more to it.
I come from a perspective that I like to refer to as “feel your feels.” Yes, what we are working on in therapy are healthy and functional ways to decrease the intensity of emotion, but I never want you to not feel them. No matter how much you sit on my couch and say, “I just don’t want to feel this way anymore.” Those feels are in existence for a reason and they are teaching us something every single time they pop up.
But that is not what this post is all about. Joy is an emotion as well, and it serves a purpose in our lives, it has a function, too. And most of us are not working too hard to feel joy less often, are we? But we do not always allow ourselves the time and the space to feel it more often, either. We sit around and wait for those little moments that bring us joy so that we can smile sigh deep and know that there is some good in the world.
This, my friend, is where gratitude comes in.
Do you remember what I said about 500 words ago about all emotions serving a purpose in our lives? The same is true for joy. And the purpose it serves? It helps us to be grateful! Why this is important to know is that it works both ways. Joy creates gratitude and seeking out gratitude creates joy right back.
What if, instead of putting all our energy into the things that help us to de-intensify those unpleasant emotions, we put some more effort into creating the pleasant ones?
A formalized gratitude practice refers to when a person sets aside time each day (or week or month) to identify and reflect on the things that they are grateful for. I personally, do it every day. I sit down with a journal and spend a few minutes thinking about the last 24 hours and find the nuggets that I have gratitude for. Maybe it is that my coffee tasted really good. Maybe it is that my cat gave me extra cuddles. Maybe it is that the temperature is cooling off. Maybe it is that my husband gave me a compliment. Maybe it is that I just bought something I was excited about. Maybe it is something I am looking forward to. Maybe it is about a million other things that could be something I have gratitude for. And sitting down each morning to write down five simple things I am grateful for is a way to literally create joy in myself before the day even starts.
Before I started using this practice, I was the queen of skeptical. Actually, I thought it was pretty dumb. I definitely talked about it with clients because it seemed to help people, but it was one of those things that I thought sounded okay in theory, but in practice was hokey and lame.
I spent a lot of time trying to distract myself from my feels so that they did not feel so intense. I would get home from a long day and use television, social media, booze, and food to numb myself out and “take the edge off” the day. Real talk? It was not pretty. I was a pretty miserable human being because I was pretty much walking around in pain all the time. Joy came in small doses and those moments seemed few and far between.
The act of practicing gratitude each morning literally changed my life. It shifted by perspective. It was a slow shift, for sure. It is not like I wrote down five things I was grateful for one time and have been walking on a cloud ever since. It took time before I began to notice the changes in my demeanor and my mood. In fact, it was such slow progress that I did not even notice that it was making a difference until I missed a few days and found myself asking “why the heck am I so salty today?” Over time, I believe that it will shift your perspective, too. Is everything in life beautiful and wonderful all of the time? Absolutely not. Am I able always find the things that I am grateful for right in the middle of a big giant shit show? Heck no. But the few moments of quiet reflection each morning coupled with the physical act of putting pen to paper and creating words that reflected my gratitude has been one of the most powerful things I have done in my life. It allows me to notice that this life has a balance of good and bad. It helps to see that things are not all one thing or all another. It helps me to present in the moments that do bring me joy because I have stopped to think about the fact that I have gratitude for them.
So, here is your challenge, my friend. Get a notebook. Any notebook will do, it does not need to be fancy. But it somewhere that you will have easy access to it in the morning-bedside table, kitchen counter, bathroom. Mine lives right next to my coffee pot. Every single morning for the next 30 days, write down 5 things from the last 24 hours that you have gratitude for. It does not matter if they are big, small, or medium sized. Yes, it is okay if you use the same thing more than once (I am grateful for my cat pretty much every day). Just put your pen to paper and create the words that represent the gratitude you have and allow yourself to feel the joy. You will be surprised what a difference it makes.