You may have heard some of the buzz around “gratitude” lately – it has been picking up steam as an antidote to depression, entitlement, consumerism, you name it. And it is part of the bigger picture of what we on the psychology side of things have been calling “positive psychology.” Of course, psychologists didn’t invent the idea of giving thanks and being grateful for what we have, this is an age-old tradition, an important part of our culture in the form of Thank You cards, Thanksgiving, the phrase “count your blessings.” What is more relatively new is the idea that we can use it actively to promote well-being in the person who is giving thanks. As nice as it is to receive a thank you, we are finding that saying thanks to someone else has positive benefits too. It connects us to others and to the things in our life that we feel are important, valued, and working well.
Positive psychology is based on the idea that well-being is just as important as an absence of mental illness. For instance, rather than solely trying to reduce depression, a psychologist working from this perspective will also be interested in increasing happiness. In fact, focusing on increasing a person’s happiness has the delightful side-effect of reducing depression and can also offer a richer and more meaningful series of conversations. When I work this way with clients, I often find we end up talking about the meaning of life, in a good way. We have conversations about who and what really matters to people, about interests and passions, instances when people felt they were loved, part of something, or in the flow. The conversations are inspiring.
Often gratitude is a part of this. I’ve noticed that depression is very good at getting us to focus on things that haven’t gone well and people who have let us down. Depression sends us the message that our days are mundane, grey, and tiring. When it gets strong, depression can tell us that no one cares, that life itself is meaningless.
Focusing our attention on where life does have meaning is so important, especially when depression starts sending these messages. Thinking about what we are grateful for in our life allows us to connect with these places of meaning in a way that seems so simple at the outset; but the secret is that gratitude is different for each different person who experiences it. While many of us share a feeling of gratitude for important people in our lives, the reasons for these feelings are not always the same. It is a unique and deeply personal experience and one that fosters a sense of connection and meaning – an experience that is only deepened when we choose to share our thankfulness with others.
If you’ve ever been on the other side of a heartfelt “thank you,” you will have felt the warmth of being appreciated. What we don’t often appreciate is how beneficial it is for the person saying “thank you” to share their gratitude with someone else. These are important moments, particularly when they are things that are normally left unsaid.
What are you grateful for today? What brings meaning to your life? Who would you like to share this with? How would you like to share this?