When someone suggests you try being grateful when you failed an exam, lost your job, lost a loved one, are getting divorced, or are experiencing some other kind of awful, you probably want to punch that person in the face. (Hold on. Let me step aside.)
But practicing gratitude during a difficult time can genuinely help.
In 2009, I distinctly remember sitting around the table with my family, before or after my dad’s funeral, and all of us cracking up. I can’t remember why. But I can remember that it was the best kind of laughter—full body, sides hurting, faces contorted, uncontrollable, can’t-catch-your-breath laughter. And as I looked around my parents’ kitchen table, I remember being so grateful that during one of the worst and most painful moments of my life, my family dropped everything and flew down to be with my mom and me. And somehow, we were laughing! Somehow, gratitude was present in that pain.
According to renowned gratitude researcher Robert A. Emmons, Ph.D, in his piece in Greater Good Magazine, “No one ‘feels’ grateful that he or she has lost a job or a home or good health or has taken a devastating hit on his or her retirement portfolio.”
This is understandable. Plus, “we don’t have total control over our emotions. We cannot easily will ourselves to feel grateful, less depressed, or happy.”
But, Emmons writes, there’s a distinction between feeling grateful and being grateful. While we might not feel grateful during a difficult time, we can be grateful. We can choose gratitude. We can choose a grateful perspective.
“When disaster strikes, gratitude provides a perspective from which we can view life in its entirety and not be overwhelmed by temporary circumstances,” Emmons writes in his piece.
In short, gratitude can be our raft.
In her excellent book My Pocket Gratitude: Anytime Exercises for Awareness, Appreciation, and Joy, author and researcher Courtney E. Ackerman, shares an array of powerful suggestions. Here are five ideas from her book to practice when stress and chaos strike.
Look for the lesson. We often learn the most pivotal lessons of our lives during difficult times—if we’re willing to look and listen. We learn during our biggest blunders, massive mistakes, and devastating losses. So even though thinking about what you’ve learned from an experience might seem cliché, it can be invaluable.
Ackerman suggests jotting down at least five or six lessons you’ve learned about yourself, your life, and others. She uses the example of going through a divorce:
- I have learned that I can’t be with someone who has X trait or Y habit.
- I have learned that I’m much stronger and more capable than I thought.
- I have learned that time really does take the sting out of your pain (slowly).
When you’re done writing your lessons, read your list and express your gratitude out loud: “I am grateful that I have learned….” At the end, tell yourself: “I’m struggling now, but I am grateful for what I have learned and I will be better equipped to handle struggles the next time they pop up.”
Count your current blessings. Ackerman suggests thinking about what you’re currently struggling with and identifying the area of your life that it’s affecting. Next, think about all the other areas of your life where you’re not struggling. Maybe you’re struggling with a work issue, so you think about your good health and your fulfilling home life. Then reflect on all the things that are going right.
Consider what’s way worse. Name what’s currently upsetting you, and then come up with a situation (or two) that’s a whole lot worse. Your worst-case scenario could be completely absurd or funny (or not). Ackerman shares these great examples in the book for a difficult boss:
- Your whole team now consists of several versions of your boss.
- Your boss follows you home and now lives with you. All. The. Time.
- You lose your job, and your boss goes everywhere with you and nitpicks everything you do.
Hunt for the positive. This is a great way to engage your imagination, and invite some play into your life—during a time you likely need it most. Create your own rules for your gratitude scavenger hunt, or use Ackerman’s: Find at least three positive things, three times a day for an entire week. And all these things have to be different. But they can be small. Even tiny. For instance, you might be grateful that a stranger held the door for you, you got to savor a hot cup of coffee, or your favorite shirt was clean after all.
Visualize something good. This is another way to use your imagination. Start by finding a quiet spot, get comfortable, and close your eyes. Think about some of the best experiences you’ve had, or your favorite things, people, and places. Next pick one to focus on and visualize. Recreate the smallest details. Really sink into this image.
For example, according to Ackerman, you might visualize your living room on Christmas Eve. You might visualize the tree glistening with lights and meaningful ornaments; the fire crackling; the smell of fresh chocolate chip cookies and hot chocolate, and the sound of your children’s laughter. “Let that goodness seep into you, and carry it with you when you open your eyes and continue on with your day.”
When you’re going through a difficult time, it’s important to honor your feelings. Honor your pain, hurt, confusion, anger, and fear. And adjust your perspective. Because even in the midst of the worst kinds of losses, there can be love and even laughter. And for that we can be grateful.