I’ve been planning, for some time, to write an article on the subject of gratitude, though the topic poses something of a dilemma. A Google search will immediately yield links to numerous articles about the psychological (and even physical) benefits of experiencing gratitude and, although it’s probably clear to most of us that gratitude is good for one’s mood and likely to benefit one’s mental health, the fact is that telling folks that they should “be grateful” will often prompt resentment along with a decrease, rather than an increase, in gratitude. Many published exercises in gratitude attempt to awaken feelings of appreciation by directing us to note, with wonder, the countless miracles associated with being alive. I find some of these exercises to be potentially uplifting, but they all run the risk of falling flat, raising cynicism or anger rather than gratitude. Telling people how they should feel is usually experienced as invalidating, whether the feeling being prescribed is gratitude or any other emotion state.
During one of our weekly clinical team meetings, a colleague of mine* recently led our small group in a “gratitude mindfulness” exercise. She asked us each to privately list on paper the things about which we felt the most grateful, and to simply reflect on them, silently, for several minutes. At the end of the time we shared impressions of our experience, but our lists remained private. I was pleasantly surprised at how well this worked, probably because there were no “should’s” attached and because the choice was left to each of us to select those things about which we truly felt grateful.
If you would like to try this, either with family or friends, I suggest you follow a similar procedure. Remember that this is an exercise in gratitude, not a prescription! And make sure that all participants know that they will not be asked to reveal their choices. (I, for one, feel gratitude at having this opportunity to share these thoughts with you!)
*Many thanks to Kelly Zbojovsky, Ph.D., my colleague who led us in this exercise.
Dr. Stone, a clinical psychologist, is an Assistant Professor of Psychology in Clinical Psychiatry at Weill Medical College of Cornell University, and Director of the Dialectical Behavior Therapy Program for Self-Injuring Adolescents at the Westchester Division of New York Presbyterian Hospital in White Plains, New York. He resides in Pawling with his wife, Susan, and their family.