On a scale from 1 to 10, how upset do you get when someone tells you to “think positively” or “be grateful for what you have” while you’re going through a crisis?
Yes, when people put it that way it feels like they’re annulling your feelings and the hard times you’re going through. But is there some truth to it? What does practicing gratitude when life is hard actually mean? And does it really help?
Practicing Gratitude When Life Is Hard: It’s Not What You Think
If decades of research about the benefits of gratitude have taught us anything, it’s that developing an attitude of gratitude can change our lives in a myriad of ways:
It strengthens our relationships with other people.
So, it’s not about magically healing after saying: “oh, okay, it could be worse, I’m not going to complain anymore”. It’s about gradually developing a more positive attitude that can be of particular help when life gets hard.
Feeling Grateful vs. Being Grateful
Don’t get us wrong: we’re not saying that gratitude comes easily in times of crisis. As we learned in 2020, people have a variety of reactions to a crisis, however, they’re pretty similar everywhere on Earth, and it can be extremely challenging to feel grateful right after something unpleasant happened.
At this point, we need to make an important distinction between feeling grateful and being grateful. The former is a feeling we have little control over. We can’t willingly feel grateful, happy, nor depressed, because feelings naturally arise as a result of our interaction with the world.
However, there is something we can choose: our attitude. Being grateful can make us more resilient when faced with trouble. It provides us a possibility to see life from multiple perspectives, even when it seems that there’s only one perspective left: the catastrophic one.
If you’d like to find out more about practicing gratitude when life is hard, keep reading. We might have something useful for you.
1. Remember the Hard Times
Sometimes, going through a rough patch in life can actually deepen our gratefulness. How? If we don’t take things for granted.
An example of this is celebrating Thanksgiving day. After the death of nearly half of the pilgrims and in the middle of a civil war, it became a national holiday. Then, during the Great Depression, it was moved to the current date.
The thing is: we take good times for granted, thinking we’re invulnerable. Then, when uncertainty strikes, we realize how easily we can lose control over what’s happening in the outside world. If we start acknowledging what we have, we’ll stop taking it for granted.
This basically means that times of crisis can make us more grateful, which is in line with the research results on gratitude: practicing gratitude helps us build a more resilient response to crises and experience less stress. Practicing gratitude at all times is like building an emotional immune system that can prevent major injuries.
So, How Do You Remember the Hard Times (and Not Only on Thanksgiving)?
The simplest way is by keeping some kind of journal, be it a reflective journal, bullet journal, pocket journal, or a digital journal… the point is to use it to memorize your sorrows and commemorate them. When the hard times are over, you'll remember them the same time next year, or in five years, and show yourself some respect for where you’ve been, and where you are in this new moment.
Perhaps you’re out of a toxic relationship, going through depression, left a job you didn’t like, lost financial stability, or took a big step into the unknown to pursue a new career, and so on. And look at yourself now–you’ve found your way out of the dark!
This kind of commemoration of our struggles and comparison between our past and our current is an excellent ground for instilling an attitude of gratitude.
2. Reframe the Bad
Is practicing gratitude when life is hard a helpful strategy? Yes. Should we ignore pain and suffering? Absolutely not.
Positive psychology has often been criticized for being “too negative about negativity”, or rather for denying the importance of negative emotions in difficult times. When we’re going through a trauma, there’s no amount of “positive thoughts” that can, or even should wash away the sadness, anger, disappointment, or pain. These are normal emotions that play an important role in our psychological coping and wellbeing.
This returns us to the beginning of this article: when someone tells you to simply “count your blessings” or “be grateful for what you have” you’re allowed to be annoyed. It puts a lot of negative pressure on a person and denies their suffering. However, being grateful and looking at life through “gratitude glasses” doesn’t mean ignoring and denying the negative stuff. It’s more about realizing that even when things get rough, you still have control over some parts of your life. You still have the power to transform your experience: reframe the negativity about an obstacle into a positive idea of an opportunity, or a challenge (more information about this later on).
Participants in this study were first randomly assigned to three writing groups. All groups were to recall and report an unpleasant or upsetting memory from their past.
In the next step of the experiment, the first group was to write about random things or irrelevant to their memory, while the second group was to describe the experience itself. The third group, on the other hand, was to focus on the positive aspects of the experience and think whether there’s something about the memory they could be grateful for.
The results revealed that the third group exhibited more closure and less emotional suffering than the participants from the other two groups. They weren’t told to not think about the negative aspects–they were just prompted to reframe the experience by adding another dimension to it.
If you’d like to apply this method to your own unpleasant memories, here are some questions you can ask yourself, using the language of gratitude that can help you reframe the experience.
What did I learn from this experience?
Is there something to be grateful for?
What new skills/abilities/strengths did I gain from this experience?
In what aspects am I now a better person?
Did the negative feelings connected to this event block me from feeling gratitude since then?
What obstacle did I overcome through this experience?
Important disclaimer: the goal is not to get retraumatized and relive the negative experience all over again. The goal is to gain a new perspective and become aware of particular positive aspects. There is a huge difference between meaningless venting and grateful thinking: the latter helps you gain a fresh perspective and learn new things.
3. Keep a Gratitude Journal
After the previous two points and this talk about the attitude of gratitude and grateful thinking, you’re probably left wondering: How do I do this? Are there some specific steps I can take to start practicing this attitude?
The answers are: easily, and yes!
The simplest way to start practicing gratitude is by filling out a gratitude journal. Gratitude journaling can be a private act, or you can share it with the people you love, such as your family, or partner. Although filling out a journal itself is simple and easy, the change takes time, persistence, and openness.
If you would like to implement the practice of gratitude in your life, we’ve created the simple and elegant Five Minute Journal.
The Five Minute Journal is designed to shift your mind to a state of optimism and greater positivity and help you focus on the good in life. How?
Grateful Morning and Evening Routine
The Five Minute Journal is intended to be filled out for five minutes after waking up and before going to bed. It can be a part of your positive morning and evening routine, alone, or with your loved ones.
That way, you’ll begin and end each day with a positive outlook on life. Instead of allowing negative thoughts in after waking up, The Five Minute Journal gears you to think about:
“What would make today great?”
“What am I grateful for today?”, and so on.
So, regardless of how hard life is at the moment, The Five Minute Journal is always there to remind you that there’s something to look forward to every day, no matter how little.
Then, as the day reaches an end, and it’s time to begin your pre-bed routine, it’s time for spending five minutes with The Five Minute Journal again. The point is to finish the day, no matter how hard, with a little bit of positivity and gratitude.
If there’s something that goes hand-in-hand with the attitude of gratitude, it's a growth mindset.
The concept of the growth mindset comes from 30 years ago when psychologist and university professor Carol Dweck wanted to find out more about students’ attitudes regarding failure. She and her colleagues noticed how some students quickly rebounded after failing, while some seemed devastated. The former also progressed much faster, because they’d engage in the learning process again very quickly, and the latter had a lot of trouble with their self-esteem and getting back on track.
That’s what the growth mindset is all about: believing that your knowledge, skills, intelligence, and competence are subject to continuous development. This is what makes people stronger, motivated to put in extra effort, and, consequently, accomplish higher achievements.
The opposite concept to the growth mindset is the fixed mindset: believing that our traits and skills are carved in stone, and therefore, unchangeable. The fixed mindset is, in fact, a self-debilitating attitude that serves the purpose of protecting our ego and pride that keeps us in place and away from progress.
Heck, the thing even scientists thought was fixed and unchangeable actually changes with experience; our DNA and the activation of our genes! For example, two identical twins separated at birth and raised by different families will have different DNA 20 or 50 years later, all due to their different experiences in life.
So now, it’s up to you to conclude if the way our neurons work and connect can change and if our biological code, the essence of what makes us alive, can undergo changes. Can we change our attitude and mindset?
5. Contribute to a Greater Cause
One particularly important way of practicing gratitude when life is hard (but also when it isn’t) is contributing to a greater cause. Whether it’s volunteering at the local nursing home, cleaning up your neighborhood, donating to food banks or investing in business you truly believe in, helping others simply boosts our happiness and wellbeing.
Moreover, being thanked for our actions by someone else can help us get in touch with our gratitude. This feeling of being interconnected through altruism and being a part of something bigger can get us through any kind of hard times.
Research conducted at the University of Pittsburgh discovered that helping others changes the way our brain works. Acts of altruism activate brain regions linked to parental care behavior and lower the levels of activity in the amygdala responsible for fear and stress responses.
This neurological response is an excellent foundation for building a long-term psychological and emotional response to stress that’s more positive and broad-minded.
Helps us combat anxiety, depression, stress, and anger;
Gives us a feeling of purpose in life.
All of the above are linked to the attitude of gratitude.
If you decide to engage in some kind of volunteer work, make sure that:
You have enough time to do it so that you don’t quit immediately;
You care about it and it suits your interests;
The channels of your activism are aligned with your personal values.
It’s important that you do this because you really care and enjoy contributing, as only staying true to yourself will bring you closer to a positive change.
If you’re going through a rough patch and you’re feeling sad, angry, upset, or scared–that’s fine. Hard feelings are an important part of us and we shouldn’t try to deny them.
Practicing gratitude when life is hard should be both about acknowledging the suffering and taking action towards a positive change through reframing, keeping a gratitude journal, adopting a growth mindset, and contributing to a greater cause.
Mental health is a spectrum and languishing, the peculiar state between depression and wellbeing, is a serious risk factor. After reading this article you'll be well equipped with solid strategies to combat your feelings of emptiness.