No matter how hard you try, it is impossible to be grateful and depressed.
~ Robert Holden
The other day my teenage daughter was feeling mopey, down and basically hormonal. She had no energy and could find nothing fun or exciting in her day. I tried everything I could think of to help boost her mood – exercise, a back massage, lavender oil. None of the usual tools really helped her on this day, and she continued to mope. This went on for hours and hours.
Eventually, I remembered a little thing called Gratitude. And I knew I had found the answer.
A little exercise
She was sitting next to me working on a puzzle. I got up and retrieved a piece of paper and a pen and placed them in front of her. Puzzled, she asked me what they were for. I told her I wanted her to make a list of things she was grateful for; 101 of them in fact. She was very curious about why. But I just told her to begin writing.
She grabbed the pen and immediately began to think, and then started writing. I got up to make dinner. Every few minutes I would check back and she was still writing. She got to 16 things and then 37 and then 75… Finally, she stopped when she ran out of room on the front and back of the paper at 175 items she was grateful for. She jumped up, full of energy, a smile beaming across her face. Like that, she was restored to her natural default state – joy and lightness.
She ran over and gave me the biggest hug.
One of the things on her list was how Mom’s Life Hacks always help her 😉
I told her the quote above – it is impossible to be grateful and depressed. She agreed readily but wondered why that is true. I got to thinking about why that might be true. Here is what I came up with:
4 things gratitude can do for us
- We find what we are looking for. When we are stuck in a downward spiral, or even just a bad day, it is easy for us to get focused in on all that is going wrong. Or when we take the time to list the things we are grateful for, it forces us to look for those tiny things in life that we appreciate, like a gem hidden in the dirt.
- When we are having a bad day or are in a bad situation, feelings like anger and sadness can make us shrink. We can feel cold or lacking or just basically miserable. But when we decide to focus on gratitude, we become more expansive and warm. We may feel more optimistic or hopeful.
- Scanning our lives for the “good.” I must note here that I generally do not like to label things as “good” or “bad.” Things and events are actually just neutral. It is us who give them meaning. We can choose to look at elements in a situation and give it a “bad” meaning. Or we can choose to look at elements in a situation and give it a “good” meaning. But the “things” are just neutral. This is an important distinction to make because being aware of the meaning we are applying to something can also help us to turn around our negative thinking.
- Along those same lines, in order to uncover what we are grateful for, we either have to overlook the “bad” stuff (a flat tire, not getting the job, etc.) or find the blessing IN the “bad” thing (even better!). Being able to find the positive in a challenging situation is a very powerful skill indeed. Here are a few examples. Maybe getting that flat tire prevented us from having an accident a half mile up the road. Or maybe not getting that job we really wanted freed us up to say yes to the even better job that is coming along tomorrow. Having that $200 plumbing repair bill is certainly better than having a $2000 bill. If you look deep enough, you can always find a blessing, or something to be grateful for, in a given situation. I was even able to find meaning in my daughter’s death. That entire story is for another day, but her life and death inspired a family member to get off of drugs and stay clean, where he remains to this day 17 years later. I could have continued to remain stuck in my deep grief over her death, but I decided to look hard to find the many blessings hidden in the pain. And if I can do it with an experience that significant and gut-wrenching, you can too. Gratitude certainly did not bring my daughter back to life, but it sure did help me to not only survive, but to thrive in spite of her death.
Try something right now. Grab a piece of paper and begin to write what you are grateful for. Don’t set a goal for any particular number. Just begin writing and stop when you feel ready. Notice how many things you came up with and notice how you feel after doing this exercise.
Pretty powerful, eh?