How to Practice Gratitude When You’re in a Bad Place

Experiencing fear and pain, shouldn't deprive you of being appreciative and feeling joy, too.

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A woman in her home feeling a sense of gratitude.

There is no shortage of evidence that demonstrates how gratitude is not only good for your physical health, but also makes you more emotionally resilient. Several studies conducted by gratitude researchers like Martin Seligman, Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania and Robert Emmons, Ph.D. at the University of California in Davis show that people who keep gratitude journals and do other simple exercises of appreciation are more optimistic and healthier. 

But what about those times in your life when you’re debilitated by illness, enmeshed in grief, or just having a hard time being positive about anything? How do you practice gratitude when you’re in a really bad place?

Self-Compassionate and Gratitude

In his book What Happy People Know, Dan Baker, writes “It is a fact of neurology that the brain cannot be in a state of appreciation and a state of fear at the same time. The two states may alternate, but are mutually exclusive.”

I disagree.

I have found that you absolutely can be in a state of depression or anxiety and still practice gratitude. In fact, that is precisely when gratitude is most helpful. But it can’t be the forced kind of gratitude, where you flog yourself for not feeling the joy you think you ought to feel given your many blessings. It has to be a form of appreciation that is gentle and self-compassionate; one that accepts your present state of mind, while acknowledging what is good in your life.

Don’t Force Gratitude

Most of us have difficulty practicing self-compassion when hit with dark emotions. It can be challenging to approach gratitude organically: to welcome feelings of grief, anger, shame, and regret as houseguests, careful not to let them take up permanent residence. 

We need to honor them without engaging too much with them.

A research study at the University of Wisconsin-Madison illuminates why forcing positive thoughts in a depressed state can be like running with a sprained ankle: you could prolong your injury and do more harm than good. High-definition brain scans revealed the more effort a depressed person puts into reframing thoughts, forcing positivity, the more activation there was in the amygdala, regarded by neuroscientists as the brain’s “fear center.”

Instead of lambasting ourselves for not “seeing the glass half full” and a lapse of positivity, we are better off adopting an attitude of curiosity. “I wonder what this emotion has to teach me…” We might also distinguish between an exercise of appreciation and our physiological inability to experience joy. In the midst of a depressive episode, I would often say to myself, “I acknowledge this blessing in my life. While I am presently incapable of experiencing the joy that it brings me, I am still grateful for it, and I am confident that the joy will return one day.”

Mindfulness and Gratitude

In his book Mindfulness for Beginners, scientist and meditation teacher Jon Kabat Zinn, Ph.D. writes, “So much of the time, we can find ourselves in pain in one way or another, suffering in the face of what Zorba the Greek called ‘the full catastrophe’ of life. … But even in such moments, some other dimension of the experience may be available to us.”

During those seasons of my life when I am consumed by sadness or mired in panic, I keep a journal where I list moments during my day where I experience a reprieve from my pain: five or ten minutes here or there where I am able to access peace, joy, and hope. I write down things like being held by my husband as I wake up, my daughter telling me she loves me as I drive her to school, laughing with a friend over coffee. These celebrated moments become the bedrock of a foundation of gratitude that expands father into my day as I recover.

There Is Good Even in the Bad

According to French priest Jacques Philippe, the worst thing that could ever happen to us is for everything to go right. No spiritual growth would happen; we would never learn to lean on God. When we go through trials, it helps us to locate our source of identity in God.

Furthermore, good can be drawn from everything: despair, death, sin, failure, humiliation, separation. God makes use of it all. In his book Interior Freedom, Fr. Philippe writes, “Everything that has happened and happens to you is part of a long and providential project of your Father God. Many things will cause you darkness and suffering, but if you have recourse to your faith, it will be your shield.”

Those two concepts—that there is good even in pain and that everything happens for a reason—are immensely consoling to me and allow me to approach my suffering with gratitude.

In summary: How do you practice gratitude when you’re in a really bad place? 

Gently. With a dose of self-compassion, mindfulness, and faith. 

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