Gratitude during Crisis
A few years ago, a group of researchers at the University of California (Berkeley and Davis campuses) started the Gratitude Project. The purpose of this collaboration is to study the effects of gratitude on human psychology, grit, and resilience. The researchers published a collection of essays and stories in a book called The Gratitude Project in 2019.
Psychologist and gratitude expert Robert A. Emmons contributed a chapter on using gratitude during crisis. He wrote,
“I have often been asked if people can – or even should – feel grateful under dire circumstances. My response is that a grateful attitude will not only help but is also essential. In fact it is precisely under crisis conditions when we have the most to gain by a grateful perspective on life."
Emmons is not saying that gratitude is a form of “happiology” in which we deny that real suffering exists.
Some of us have suffered heavily in recent years because of the global pandemic, civil and social unrest, political division, war, and economic turmoil. To deny that life is sometimes darkened by pain and sorrow would be unrealistic and, frankly, unbearable. Imagine a world where shadows of suffering exist, but we are never allowed to speak of them. Such a world would feel unspeakably cruel.
Rather, gratitude is a tool to reframe loss into a potential gain. When we do this, it is possible that, as Emmons wrote:
"In the face of demoralization, gratitude has the power to energize. In the face of brokenness, gratitude has the power to heal. In the face of despair to bring hope. In other words, gratitude can help us cope with hard times.”
This is precisely why gratitude has been such a powerful tool during the global pandemic:
- Gratitude and optimism were shown to protect our sense of well-being.
- Gratitude reduced feelings of depression in frontline healthcare workers in the worst areas of the pandemic. It did this by fostering social connections and building sense of hope.
- Gratitude and kindness predicted better mental health outcomes in the workplace. It also helped workers deal with the new stress of working from home.
- In undergraduate students, those with more pre-COVID gratitude had less anxiety post-COVID, less negative changes in outlook, greater changes in positive outlook, and tended to think more about positive experiences resulting from Covid (like strengthening of social connections).
- Writing a gratitude exercise every day for three weeks helped undergraduate students boost positive feelings during pandemic.
We Can Be Grateful Even When We Don't Feel Grateful.
Emmons stresses that we make a distinction between feeling grateful and being grateful. Feeling grateful is not easy or natural during crisis or extreme loss. We don’t have much control over the ebb and flow of our emotions, but we do have control over the choice to be grateful.
As poet Jack Gilbert wrote in his poem "A Brief for the Defense,"
“We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world. To make injustice the only measure of our attention is to praise the devil.”
When we choose gratitude, we gain a perspective beyond current circumstances. We deliberately take the long view of life.
The current crisis may feel like a dark, eternal winter, but the long view reminds us that icebound winters are followed by spring thaws. And if I've learned anything from studying the research of gratitude, it's that the roots of gratitude are surprisingly tenacious - they dig deep into even frozen, fallow ground. Such roots are sure to flourish in the spring.
How to Use Gratitude During Crisis
Crisis can often feel senseless. And let’s face it – some tragedies have no inherent meaning or redeeming quality to speak of.
Gratitude involves a choice to repurpose pain into personal growth.
The psychological term for this is “post-traumatic growth,” the lessons and meaning we gain in the wake of crisis and trauma. Post-traumatic growth oftens leads to:
- Stronger self-perception as we realize we can cope with hardship;
- Stronger relationships with more time spent in helping others;
- Shifts in life priorties and values; and
- Greater acceptance of mortality coupled with greater appreciation of each day of life.
Here are some questions to ask:
- Can I find ways to be thankful for what happened to me now, even though I was not at the time it happened? How did this crisis change my life in a positive way? Can this problem help me grow in patience or perseverance?
- What lessons did this crisis teach me? What do I see now that I didn’t see before? Can I see others’ struggles more clearly and empathize with them? How did my life priorities change?
- How did I meet this challenge in ways that surprised/encouraged me? What inner strengths did this crisis uncover?
- How am I now more the person I want to be because of it? Ernest Hemingway famously wrote, “The world breaks everyone and afterward, many are strong in the broken places.” Did the current adversity stretch and strengthen me for future adversity? Do I feel more confident that I can handle the next problem life throws at me?
- Will I be able to help someone more because of what I’ve been through? Often, nothing means more to someone who is suffering than the comfort and support of someone else who has been through the same thing.
As Emmons writes,
“Remember, your goal here is not to relive the experience but rather to get a new perspective on it. Simply rehearsing an upsetting event makes us feel worse about it. That is why catharsis has not really been effective….No amount of writing about the event will help unless you are able to take a fresh, redemptive perspective on it. This is an advantage that grateful people have - and it is a skill that anyone can learn.”
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