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Ask a Therapist: Column #8

Q: I have heard of people keeping a gratitude journal.  Why might that activity be helpful for someone’s mental health?

A: The celebration of Thanksgiving encourages us to revisit the importance of gratitude in our own lives. Perhaps it is the perfect springboard to consider incorporating gratefulness into our daily lives, even once all the leftover turkey has been eaten!

For many years, psychological study was focused on identifying problems and providing helpful solutions but, in recent years, some of the most interesting research has shifted to consider what constitutes a life that is lived well.  This research on thriving has led to many important findings about contentment and satisfaction in life and these concepts form the basis for much of the Positive Psychology movement.

Gratitude has been identified as a key practice that contributes to health and wellbeing for a number of compelling reasons. Some of the benefits of giving thanks include mood elevation, increased satisfaction with work and home life, less emphasis on consumerism and materialism, higher levels of energy, greater resiliency, and protection against burnout. With a list like that promising so many benefits, it’s no wonder that many have called it a “super tool” in the pursuit of mental health.

Gratitude is a mental exercise that orients your thinking to what is right in your world and is a way of overriding a natural (and unhelpful) tendency to focus on what is wrong.  The positivity associated with cultivating gratefulness is an effective counterbalance to the tendency to complain or get caught in negative thinking patterns. It is a way to intentionally choose a focus of attention that is healthy and helpful and that contributes to a greater quality of life as it is practiced consistently over time.

It may be of interest to note that gratitude can be incredibly helpful in stabilizing and building strong relationships when it is expressed freely and sincerely.  Your parent, friend, or partner may be uplifted tremendously by the acknowledgement and affirmation that gratitude brings to the relationship dynamic and its positive effects should not be underestimated. If you are able to acknowledge the contributions of your co-workers you will find that your teams will collaborate more effectively and experience greater acceptance and confidence in the workplace.  Even a little thanksgiving can go a long way towards a positive workplace culture. 

A gratitude journal provides a space to note things that you are thankful for and can be a visual reminder of the incorporation of this attitude into your daily life.  Many people find that the discipline of simply noting three new things that they are grateful for each day is enough to move their thinking in the right direction.  Journalling in general can be a foundational tool that supports healthy emotional and psychological processing so including gratitude as a therapeutic component of that practice is a great idea.  

Setting a small but manageable goal to offer thanks at least three times each day will certainly be a worthy pursuit and a healthy intervention.  Simply writing a text, email, or handwritten thank you card each week to express sincere appreciation would be an invigorating task. Though it may have fallen out of fashion in some cases, thank you notes are always appropriate and appreciated and good for both the sender and the recipient. 

Meditating on gratefulness, contemplating abundance and contentment, and offering prayers of thanksgiving are all strategies that help nurture deeper spiritual connections as well as reaping the benefits from a psychological perspective.

Some families like to create a gratitude jar where they collect little slips of paper on which things they are thankful for are noted each week.  Sometimes these jars are opened on special occasions – like a birthday, New Year’s Eve, or, of course, Thanksgiving – to offer a tangible way of reflecting on all the blessings of that year.

Research also indicates that the more specific you are about why you are grateful and the more detail you provide about what you are thankful for, the more you will reap the rewards of a life steeped in the attitude of gratitude. The idea is that the more frequently, consistently, and earnestly you offer thanks, the better it is for your wellness. You’ll never regret making the effort!

Challenge yourself to keep Thanksgiving alive by adopting one of these simple practices into your daily routine and you’ll harvest wellness throughout the whole year.

To submit YOUR question for consideration in a future column or for more information about psychotherapy services that could help you cultivate a gratitude practice in your own life, email sarahjoycovey@gmail.com. You can follow on Instagram @sarahjoycovey and @anewleaftherapy or visit sarahjoycovey.com for more content and connection. 

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