Practicing Gratitude in the Midst of the Struggle

Practicing gratitude when life is smooth sailing is easy, but practicing gratitude in the midst of struggle is where new muscles are developed. Celebrating Thanksgiving can be really challenging for those who are grieving or in the midst of a painful season of life. When pain is in the forefront, offering gratitude is often the last thing we want to do. Try a little experiment with me -- put your hand directly in front of your face with your nose touching your hand. What can you see? Just your hand! Now gradually move your hand away from your face. Notice how your vision changes. Similarly, expressing gratitude does not erase pain, but it does help provide a larger perspective. Here are a few challenges to try to help you practice gratitude:

  1. Keep a daily gratitude journal. Fill the pages with moments small and large that you are thankful for. Even on bad days, push yourself to find at least 3 things you are thankful for -- for example another day of living, health, the sun rising, a favorite song playing on the radio, a smile from a stranger, etc. This discipline will become more natural over time as you continue to practice gratitude daily.
  2. Tell someone you love the reasons you enjoy and appreciate them. Be intentional and specific.
  3. Go on a nature walk to enjoy the beauty around you. Leave your phone at home and let yourself stop at whatever catches your eye. Savor the textures, smells, sights, sounds, etc
  4. Write down as many things you can for which you are thankful for about a trying situation. In a particularly hard season of my life I used this challenge as a discipline. I pushed myself to write down 50 things I was thankful in the midst of my pain and anger. I was amazed to see the small ways hope and healing and joy were surrounding me, but how often I struggled to see it. Writing down the names of people that had come into my life, deeper relationships, more awareness of myself, engagement with my feelings, etc. was a great reminder of the growth I was experiencing in my pain.
  5. When a negative thought invades your mind, intentionally reframe the thought to find the positive. For example, if angrily stuck sitting in traffic, I may remind myself that I now have some extra moments to myself or to prepare for my day.
  6. Create a visual gratitude board. Cut and paste images, quotes, or drawings that represent gratitude or things you are grateful for.
  7. Share your moments of gratitude daily at the dinner table with family and friends. Create a daily rhythm of practicing gratitude in a community. Not only can gratitude be contagious, but sharing together also provides accountability for this new practice.
  8. Thank people for a job well done. Whether this be a barista after a good cup of coffee, the grocery store clerk, coworker, friend, your partner, or your child, be intentional about thanking them for their effort.
  9. Volunteer for an organization that uses your gifts and passions. Volunteering with others in pain can also provide a wider perspective on life.
  10. Remind yourself of ways previous struggles and challenges produced growth of character in your life. Reflecting on the ways you have overcome previous struggles can enable you tap into strengths and skills that will help you cope with your current struggles.

Remember that practicing gratitude does not necessarily mean that you feel grateful, and that’s okay. Keep with the discipline and your thoughts and feelings may change over time.