The Power of Gratitude
When I first started working with young clients as a therapist at the Boys and Girls Club I would often begin our sessions by reading a storybook. My youngest clients were five years old and enjoyed the stories, characters, and colorful illustrations. Their anticipation and joy was palatable. I would carefully select each book and was amazed at the plethora of available storybooks covering important topics like empathy, being present, feelings, and gratitude. One day I accidently discovered the power of gratitude when I read Ladybug Girl Gives Thanks by Jacky Davis (2016). My clients’ interest in talking about gratitude was immediate and ongoing. Simply put, it made them happier. I found this positive response repeated with my adolescent clients. I soon came to realize that gratitude had a healing power that was hard to ignore.
What is gratitude? It’s about acknowledging something good in your life and appreciating that it was given. It’s the realization that we have a profound connection to others. It’s understanding that we are not alone in the world no matter how difficult life seems. I also found that gratitude interventions could be used with a variety of therapeutic modalities and is equally effective when working with individual clients, groups, or families. There are many methods of gratitude induction including making lists and sharing them. My clients often expressed their feelings of gratitude through art, drama, and games.
Gratitude and Well-Being
According to a study in Applied Psychology: Health And Well-Being gratitude interventions have positive outcomes on well-being. The study concludes that grateful contemplation has a lasting positive impact on our outlook on life (Rash, Matsuba, and Prkachin, 2011). Research described in the Clinical Psychology Review also supports the use of gratitude interventions citing improvement in many areas including personal growth, resistance to trauma, and day-to-day functioning (Wood, Frosh, and Geraghty, 2010).
Neuropsychologist Rick Hanson believes gratitude helps shape the brain in both positive and lasting ways. He describes how new mental activity changes the structure of the brain allowing us to modify our behavior. “As a result, even fleeting thoughts and feelings can leave lasting marks on your brain, much like a spring shower can leave little trails on a hillside” (2009, p. 5). Dr. Robert A. Emmons states, “By measuring brain activity of participants researchers found that gratitude, like other complex emotions, causes synchronized activation in multiple brain regions, involving social concepts, emotional responses, logic, and sensory processing. But gratitude also lights up parts of the brain’s reward pathway and the hypothalamus, which controls the release of hormones that regulate bodily processes” (2016, p. 24). In other words gratitude amplifies a positive outlook on life helping clients see a path to improved health and emotional fitness. Gratitude helps shift the emotional shadings of our psyche both consciously and unconsciously.
Gratitude and Joy
I have had many conversations with children about gratitude and each time smiles and joy appeared on their faces and in their body language. According to Brother David Steindl-Rast the appreciation of what is given is what makes us joyful. “Those are the important elements of what gratefulness is. It is the appreciation of the gratuitously given opportunity. Mostly – I stress that – it is the opportunity to enjoy, but always it is the opportunity to do something with the opportunity given to us, to at least learn something and be creative and expect that there is something helpful coming, and then our openness will show us what this opportunity entails for us” (2013, p. 18). I wholeheartedly agree with him. I also agree with Brene Brown when she makes a connection between joy, gratitude, and human connectedness," It wasn’t just the relationship between joy and gratitude that took me by surprise. I was also startled by the fact that research participants consistently described both joyfulness and gratitude as spiritual practices that were bound to a belief in human connectedness and a power greater than us” (2012, p. 123).
In the middle of sorrow and darkness my clients were often able to be thankful for what they had. I often found myself humbled be their sensitivity and honesty. When they honored what they had it allowed them to better understand and accept their present circumstances. Did I Ever Tell You How Lucky You Are by Dr. Seuss (1973) became one of my favorite books to read. I can’t remember how many times I shared this delightful book with my clients but I can tell you it was a lot.
Gratitude and Self-Compassion
My clients did not always perceive themselves in a positive way. They would often come to sessions quiet and numb. It was as if the trauma in their lives had paralyzed their very soul making it difficult to feel compassion for their own life circumstances. Their self-confidence was not only under attack by the world around them but also by their own internal dialogue. As I think back on my young clients I can see that they were not only carrying heavy backpacks full of books and homework but were also burdened with a heavy emotional load that weighed on their sense of self. Each reacted to the pressures in their lives in different but equally unhealthy ways. Because gratitude can lead to joyfulness, I found that any discussion we had about being thankful brightened their day and eased their mind. Dr. Kristin Neff reminds us how important it is to stop beating ourselves up. According to her, “One of the most robust and consistent findings in the research literature is that people who are more self-compassionate tend to be less anxious and depressed” (2011, p. 110). Savoring gratefulness became a normal activity during our sessions. As their mood lightened they became more relaxed and able to express their feelings and embrace their true self.
I have to admit that I am a firm believer in the practice of gratitude because counting your blessings tends to make you happier and less depressed. I have witnessed this reaction many times both with my clients and in my own life. Finally, I am very thankful to my young clients for teaching me about the power of gratitude.
Brown, B. (2012). Daring greatly. New York, NY: Gotham Books.
Davis, J. (2016). Ladybug girl gives thanks. New York, NY: Random House.
Emmons, R. A. (2016). The little book of gratitude. New York, NY: Gaia Books.
Hanson, R. (2009). Buddha’s brain: Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.
Neff, K. (2011). Self-Compassion. New York, NY: HarperCollins.
Rash, J., Matsuba, M., & Prkachin, K. (2011) Gratitude and well-being: Who benefits the most from a gratitude intervention? Applied Psychology: Health And Well Being. doi:10.1111/j1758-0854.2011.01058.x
Rast, D. S. (2013). A good day: A gift of gratitude. New York, NY: Sterling Ethos.
Seuss, T. (1973). Did I ever tell you how lucky you are? New York, NY: Random House.
Wood, A., Frosh, J., & Geraghty, A. (2010). Gratitude and well-being: A review and theoretical integration. Clinical Psychology Review. doi:10.1016/j.cpr.2010.03.005
Richard Durborow, MA, MS, LMFT, is an AAMFT Clinical Fellow in Ventura, CA, and the founder and CEO of FeelingsCount.