Circumstances don’t make us unhappy: they only make existing attitudes more obvious. There are people overflowing with joy in hospitals and prisons; there are also people who have never seen a hardship, yet complain nonstop about their dissatisfaction with life.
Can We Help How We Feel?
Admittedly, most of us are born with inclinations toward one attitude or the other; and some people have disabilities that rule out simply “deciding” to be happy. You wouldn’t tell someone with low vision to “just focus your eyes: it’s easy if you try.” Nor does saying, “Oh, cheer up” help anyone with major depressive disorder.
Still, actions are controllable even where emotions aren’t. When you feel unhappy and frustrated, you can default to a stream of negativity (“Everything is against me. There’s nothing good in life”), and talk yourself into feeling even worse. Or you can recognize the feelings for what they are—your brain’s way of telling you that you need rest/a schedule revision/someone to talk to—and take positive action.
One advantage of “counting your blessings” is that it’s a positive action anyone can take. Family, friends, home, daily meals, and even the ability to access and read this article are all blessings to be appreciated. As already noted, there are bright spots even in lives that have more than their share of hardship.
Gratitude Is Good for Your Whole Life
Practicing thankfulness improves more than your attitude: it brings measurable benefits in every area of life.
- Physical health. A positive attitude strengthens the immune system, improves sleep, and motivates good self-care habits.
- Mental health. Negative thinking feeds self-pity and other toxic habits that exacerbate mental illness. Focusing on the positive puts life in perspective, builds emotional resilience, and improves clear-thinking ability.
- Relationships. Others seek out the company of—and willingly offer support to—grateful, cheerful people.
- Vocation/goals. Grateful people have higher self-esteem and more healthy ambition. They also bounce back faster from the “error” part of trial and error, confident of eventual success.
How to Do It
Despite awareness of the benefits, you may still find gratitude a difficult skill to practice. Especially if you (or someone under your care) have a major disability, just getting through a typical day may burn every perceptible milligram of your energy. Finding time and will to try anything else can feel like the impossible dream.
Take heart: no one’s asking you to reinvent your whole life overnight. Of course, if your emotions are a major wreck, the first step is to consult a doctor and see whether you could benefit from medication. But even with the best prescription, much responsibility for positive action remains yours; and starting with even a tiny change can build momentum in the right direction. The first step can be as simple as, every time you use a shopping or medication-management app, breathing a silent thanks for the assistive technology that makes coping a bit easier.
The following are tips many people have found helpful in growing the attitude of gratitude.
- Put your blessings in tangible form. Keep a journal, hang up a gratitude board, fill a jar with slips on which you have written positive things. When you start to feel down, review all you have to be thankful for.
- Begin each day on a positive note. Rather than checking the news—which usually turns your mind to what’s wrong in the world—first thing after getting up, read or listen to something inspirational.
- End each day on the right note, too. A couple of hours before retiring, turn off all screens and relax with some soft music and a cup of herbal tea (or whatever non-stimulating activity suits your preferences). Fall asleep with good thoughts and feelings on your mind.
- Take care of your overall health. Besides getting adequate sleep, include physical activity in your daily routine, and eat a nutritious diet (if you’re short on cooking time, grab your meals from the produce aisle and deli rather than the fast-food drive-through). Healthy bodies feed healthy attitudes as well as vice versa.
- Exercise your brain, too. Set aside regular time for puzzles or serious reading: it sharpens your mind for solving problems and for spotting the good things in life.
- Emphasize routine and organization. Controlling what you can control helps you stay positive. It also reduces delays and last-minute adjustments that generate stress.
- Don’t forget “me time.” And don’t be afraid to ask for help managing your duties. Caretakers, especially, often feel guilty if they take a break—as though they were deserting their loved one and thinking only of themselves. But it’s a false guilt. You’re only one person, and trying to do more than you’re capable of will wear you out and leave you resenting everyone and everything.
- Avoid hurrying to get more done—it’ll just reinforce the idea that “nothing is ever enough.” Pare your “do” list to the essentials, then go at a reasonable speed and take time to appreciate the little blessings along the way.
- Choose your peers for their positive attitudes as well as their empathy. Complaining attitudes are contagious and toxic. On the other hand, perpetually “sunny” people can be fatiguing if you have mental health issues—especially if their sunniness manifests in nagging you to be more cheerful than you’re capable of.
- Say “thank you” to everyone you can think of: the friend who stands by you on your worst days, the therapist who encourages you to keep going, the barista who mixes your latte, your favorite teacher from twenty years ago—and, if you’re a caregiver, the person in your charge for the very real blessings they bring into your life.