Be grateful? Now? Really? – Part 12 of the blog series: Influencing yourself and others

For many people this year has really been a tough one in terms of health, finance and emotions. People have been laid off, companies are at risk, in others the employees are working until they drop, society seems to be dividing. And yet one cannot help but think about the word gratitude.

How do you feel about gratitude?

  1. That too? No thanks!
  2. No time for it
  3. Am on it every day

The crux when it comes to the subject of gratitude is, no matter how you twist and turn it - gratitude makes sense. Why? Firstly, it is quite simply healthy. And secondly, it is of absolutely no use to anyone if you are not grateful for what you have.

Gratitude is healthy

Let us look at the research behind gratitude which has exploded since the 1990s in the context of positive psychology. To get you started, here's an experiment: students are divided into three groups and for ten weeks each group is given the task of writing a paragraph about the previous week; group 1 about such experiences that create a feeling of gratitude, group 2 about all their annoyances, and group 3 completely neutral about everything that happened. i

After these ten weeks, an assessment is made to see which of the three groups feels best. You can guess the result, right? Quite obviously: the students who had expressed their gratitude felt considerably happier, more satisfied, more optimistic and healthier than the other two groups.

Want more examples?

  • Gratitude among medical staff leads to less burnout and more job satisfaction.ii
  • The same principle even applies to the really tough guys, the firefighters. Those who feel gratitude are not as stressed, have less burnout and are less cynical.iii At first glance, the cynicism might come as a surprise in such a meaningful job. In reality, however, there are so many terrible experiences when putting out fires that cynicism is a fairly normal protective reaction. Which can be somewhat diluted by gratitude for the benefit of all.
  • If people write a letter of gratitude three weeks in a row - which they do not even have to send - they feel emotionally and psychologically healthier. They also restructure their brain considerably: Even after three months, it is measurably better at recognizing what your neuronal universe can be grateful for.iv
  • And last but not least, gratitude has a proven positive effect on your blood pressure and the quality of sleep.iv

First conclusion: gratitude is quite simply healthy for us - so why not encourage it, especially in difficult times like these??

Being offended with the world is of no use

Second point: gratitude reminds us that it simply is not use feeling offended by the world. For this world, or even this "fate", has no duty whatsoever towards us. Unfortunately! So all of us have experienced how unfair it can be - someone gets fired and then illness strikes; someone loses a leg and the wife gets cancer. The Greek idea of a balanced scale seems simply not to be anchored in the world' s nervous system.

Knowing about this finiteness, about the lack of any guarantee for anything, gratitude for what we have right here and now is simply elementary. After all, everything can be lost in a wink of an eye and then we get angry and mourn that we did not appreciate what we had when we still had it.

Like almost everything else in life, this learning to appreciate can be practised. Like in the wonderful children's story "A squash and a squeeze" by Julia Donaldson, in which an old lady finds her house much too small. The solution is to follow a wise man's advice to take one by one her hen, her goat, her pig and her cow into her tiny house. And of course, after she throws them out again towards the end of the book, she thinks her house is gigantic!

Even without a cow and pig in the house can we become aware of what is good around us in this very moment (without of course ignoring the willingness to change - gratitude is not the same as blind acceptance). For example, the – typically well-meaning - people around us, a safe environment without war and hunger, a good team, our own body, the coffee in the morning, the beautiful old door - all this should already be appreciated while it is there.

For additional practice we can follow the advice of Dr. Rosmarie Mendel from the Centre for Mental Health. She recommends every evening going through what one can be thankful for, using each finger for one thing. This has proven to be a resounding success with some people: A few years later a beaming participant told her, that his fingers were no longer enough and that he now also needed all his toes!

Last but not least, it is always helpful to have a brief look at how others are doing. Of course, this requires tact and sensitivity as not to exploit the suffering of others to create self-centred shivers of horror. Nevertheless, I know how important, for example, the film Schindler's List was for me. Not only as a film, but also to show one' s own self that no matter how lost one might have felt as a student, there was no reason to remain melancholy for any length of time. I only had to try to feel my way into the victims for a few seconds to understand how wonderfully well I was doing.

Therefore I posit the invitation: " Reach for your fingers and toes in the evening. Or read the wonderful novel "Job" by Joseph Roth. It is only when the teacher Mendel Singer has lost his loved ones that he (and the reader) realises that he was actually doing quite well before. Or watch the film "Babette's Feast", which expresses gratitude in a culinary inspiring way appropriate for the season.

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i Emmons, R. A., & McCullough, M. E. (2003). Counting blessings versus burdens: an experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journal of personality and social psychology, 84(2), 377.

ii Lanham, M., Rye, M., Rimsky, L., & Weill, S. (2012). How gratitude relates to burnout and job satisfaction in mental health professionals. Journal of Mental Health Counseling34(4), 341-354.

iii Lee, J. Y., Kim, S. Y., Bae, K. Y., Kim, J. M., Shin, I. S., Yoon, J. S., & Kim, S. W. (2018). The association of gratitude with perceived stress and burnout among male firefighters in Korea. Personality and Individual Differences123, 205-208.

iv Kini, P., Wong, J., McInnis, S., Gabana, N., & Brown, J. W. (2016). The effects of gratitude expression on neural activity. NeuroImage128, 1-10.

v Jackowska, M., Brown, J., Ronaldson, A., & Steptoe, A. (2016). The impact of a brief gratitude intervention on subjective well-being, biology and sleep. Journal of health psychology21(10), 2207-2217.