How to Be Grateful in Hard Times

How could anyone be grateful after a cancer diagnosis? A young woman finds gratitude helped her cope and became a practice as she healed. 

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- Posted on Nov 11, 2016

A woman smiles with gratitude

When I was diagnosed with cancer 11 years ago, I felt shocked, overwhelmed, terrified, sad, and a little bit angry. I certainly wasn't appreciating much of anything, at least not consciously.

But slowly, even in my turmoil, I couldn't help noticing blessings piling up: I had health insurance, a boyfriend who said, "We'll get through this," loving family members who called every day, co-workers who hired a cleaning lady and even cleaned my house themselves one time.

I finally found a wonderful doctor, friends sent thoughtful gifts of handmade things and candles, CDs, and books. One friend made me regular meals. Another from out of town visited for a week to go to a flurry appointments with me.

READ MORE: HOW TO MAKE GRATITUDE A LIFESTYLE

It got to the point where it was hard to NOT feel grateful, positive, and happy for all the love flooding my way. And it helped. It helped that for every excruciating test or result or treatment, were five acts of love—and my feelings of appreciation that followed. Studies back this up—gratitude heals. It staves off depression, it makes us happier and even healthier.

And then, after chemo, life began again. Those feelings of "I am loved!" and "I survived" began to give way to "I can't stand that colleague!" and "I hate rush hour!" That's how I knew I was well again! It's also how I knew that I needed to keep a steady infusion of goodness in my life.

Science says that stress and unhappiness strain our immune system. I knew that from here on out, I needed to do what I could to keep my blood cells in top fighting shape. So, I started a gratitude blog, which I kept—and which kept me happier—for many years.

The days in which it felt hard to be grateful for even one thing were the richest days for my list. I had to dig deep and find the kind gesture, the smile, the beauty I hadn't fully appreciated while it was happening. Noticing and writing them down illuminated them and allowed them to radiate deeper into my system and out of me into the world. The feeling of gratitude was healing.

READ MORE: GROWING AN ATTITUDE OF GRATITUDE

You can do this too. No matter your personal situation, which is likely riddled with all kinds of hard things (because you're human), no matter the state of the world (hot mess), it's possible to dig deep and start noticing the gems and holding them to the light. As a result, you may find you start noticing more things to be grateful for, which in itself can create a happier experience.

Here are some ways to get to the gratitude, even when things feel so hard:

1. Write It Down. You've heard it before, you'll hear it again. Take specific note of the beauty you saw (or tasted, smelled or heard), the kindness you received, the opportunity that arose. Notice the small victories, the subtle pleasures, the glimpses of grace.

2. Share It with Others. Tell others about what you're grateful for. Text a friend: "The moon looks amazing right now!" Call a family member: "Your card touched me." Write a creator: "What you wrote/said/made resonated with me."

3. Create It. If you're even a little bit crafty (and even if you're not!), track gratitude with creations. Paint rocks with a word that triggers appreciation. Draw a picture of something that inspires you. Sing a song of your appreciation—it counts even if it's in the shower.

4. Trade It. You can have a gratitude buddy to get you in the habit. Every day or week you can trade three things you're grateful for.

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