By Jeremy Godwin
Welcome to Let’s Talk About Mental Health, the weekly podcast full of simple ideas for better mental health by Jeremy Godwin. Each episode focuses on practical and simple things that you can do every single day to improve and maintain your mental health and wellbeing, based on quality research.
This is Episode 46 and this week I’m talking about gratitude – I’ll be discussing what it is, how it can improve your wellbeing, and how to be more grateful every day. So, let’s talk about mental health!
Listen to the podcast episode now in the Spotify player below (or using your preferred podcast service; see below for links) or continue reading for the article/transcript version.
Just quickly before I begin today, if you haven’t already signed up to receive updates and weekly episodes in your email then please take a moment to head over to letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au/subscribe — I have lots of exciting stuff coming up over the next few months which will be announced exclusively to my mailing list before anywhere else, so make sure you’re included! Now, on with this week’s episode…
FIVE-POINT EPISODE SUMMARY
- Gratitude practice is one simple way to build a more positive outlook on life, and when combined with a proactive focus on other areas of your mental health you will begin to find more and more to be grateful for.
- Gratitude is something internal (as in it’s something you can choose to do and incorporate into your way of thinking about things) and it recognises both internal and external factors in your life; in other words, you can be grateful for things about yourself as well as things about other people and the broader world.
- Gratitude has been found by researchers to have positive effects on many different factors including relationships, empathy, resilience and stress as well as physical health.
- Practicing gratitude does not require complicated processes or expensive apps; you can spend a few quality minutes each day in structured thought which will enable you to develop a greater appreciation of the good things around you and within you.
- Gratitude is a choice that you make to focus on the positive things in life; what you appreciate and what you feel fortunate for.
What are you grateful for? What do you most appreciate in your life? How often do you stop to consciously be aware of those things you appreciate the most? The concept of ‘gratitude’ has gained a lot of attention in recent years; some it good, some of it overly-complex, and some of it generic and cheesy. I don’t do cheesy on Let’s Talk About Mental Health — I focus on the stuff that actually makes practical sense and has scientific evidence to back it up, because there are just too many DIY solutions and so-called ‘quick fixes’ out there which can be less-than-effective (and I’m being kind) — and so while I’m talking about gratitude this week please keep in mind that no single action will be the magic solution for great mental health.
Improving and maintaining your mental health and wellbeing takes time, effort and perseverance, and more often than not it will involve trying lots of different things over time… so if you think we’re going to be sitting around and being grateful while singing ‘Kumbaya’ then you’re in for a shock! Gratitude practice is one simple way to build a more positive outlook on life, and when combined with a proactive focus on other areas of your mental health (like the different topics I cover every week in Let’s Talk About Mental Health) you will begin to find more and more to be grateful for.
What is gratitude?
At its core, gratitude is about being thankful and appreciative. Let me quote from Harvard Medical School:
“Gratitude is a thankful appreciation for what an individual receives, whether tangible or intangible. With gratitude, people acknowledge the goodness in their lives. In the process, people usually recognize that the source of that goodness lies at least partially outside themselves. As a result, gratitude also helps people connect to something larger than themselves as individuals — whether to other people, nature, or [something spiritual*].”Harvard Medical School, source: https://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletter_article/in-praise-of-gratitude)
* I will just quickly say here that the original text ended with “a higher power” and I’ve changed that to “something spiritual”, in recognition that there are many spiritual belief systems which don’t necessarily focus on the notion of a higher power or deity, so I wanted to ensure a diverse range of belief systems were respected. Anyway…
Gratitude is something internal (as in it’s something you can choose to do and incorporate into your way of thinking about things) and it recognises both internal and external factors in your life; in other words, you can be grateful for things about yourself (such as your ability to write or your quick wit) as well as things about other people and the broader world (like your partner, family and pets, and the natural world and pretty much everything you can think of — at the moment, I’m grateful for the arrival of Spring here in Australia… my apologies to those of you in the northern hemisphere who are heading into Autumn, but after far too many cold mornings this year I’m feeling very grateful indeed for the warm weather!).
Let’s talk about what it’s not: gratitude is not about just saying “thank you” because let’s be honest here, words can sometimes be just words. Instead, it’s about a genuine feeling of appreciation and thankfulness (but having said that, saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ to others is actually a really good thing to do because it’s a basic courtesy that falls into the ‘be kind’ thing I talk about all the time, so I do encourage you to actually say “thank you” to other people as often as you can! It’s about ensuring that those genuine feelings of thankfulness and appreciation underpin the words you’re saying…).
Gratitude is also not about only focusing on the positive and trying to ignore everything else in your life, especially the not-so-positive stuff… because that’s not gratitude, that’s denial. It is a fact of life that we all have ups and downs, and unfortunately shitty things happen, but by choosing to include gratitude as part of your way of taking care of your mental health you are reminding yourself to look for the positives and to be appreciative of all the good things in your life (as well as even the not-so-good things, if you’re comfortable enough to be able to look at them objectively and identify the opportunities to learn they are presenting you with… more on that later in the how-to section).
The thing with gratitude is that it doesn’t have to be overly complicated, and I think there’s a lot of stuff in mental health and wellbeing where people have made a living off of over-engineering the ‘how-to’ part so that they can be seen as the experts (and paid accordingly). The truth is that no single person has all the answers and there is no one size fits all approach to better mental health, and quite often it’s the simplest solutions that have the most impact (which is why I focus on simple ideas for better mental health in this podcast). Just doing one or two things may not deliver an improvement, but doing a number of things will have a higher likelihood of finding what works for you.
And so it is with gratitude — on its own it won’t magically fix everything, but when gratitude is incorporated into your daily routine, it will help you to begin to focus on what’s good in your life and also to focus on what really matters to you, because being clear about your priorities and then focusing your energy on looking after those priorities can help you to let go of stuff that’s unimportant (or at least less important than what really matters to you). I talked about Priorities back in Episode 3 and Letting Go in Episode 32, so I encourage you to check those out for more. Now let’s talk about…
How gratitude helps to create better mental health
Gratitude helps you to consciously focus on what is good in your life and what you appreciate, even if just for a few moments, and when you do that you will begin to notice more good things to appreciate, and doing so can help to put the not-great things into more context; we human beings often tend to focus on the negative by default and we can often be very self-critical. What gratitude does is redirect your attention to the good stuff; it’s like a much more positive version of that thing politicians do a lot where they’ll try to distract you with some other story (it’s the good-old “look over there!” trick), but instead of using that technique for dodgy purposes (like a politician), you’re actually helping to retrain your focus and your mindset to notice the positive more and to appreciate the good stuff in life… and there’s always good stuff.
A lot of research has been conducted into the positive effects of being consciously grateful. According to Headspace (Australia):
“Showing gratitude can help your wellbeing in a number of ways, such as:
- help build new relationships or boost current ones
- help you forgive yourself and others
- reduce anger and increase empathy
- help you sleep better, give you energy and boost self-esteem [and finally]
- make you appreciate what you have.
It can also give you feelings of happiness and appreciation, which in turn has an effect on your wellbeing.”
Source: Headspace Australia (https://headspace.org.au/blog/the-impact-of-gratitude-on-your-mental-health-and-wellbeing/)
According to PositivePsychology.com, gratitude can lead to:
- increased happiness and positive mood
- [greater] satisfaction with life
- [being] less materialistic [i.e. Focused on money and things]
- [being] less likely to experience burnout
- better physical health
- lower levels of cellular inflammation
- greater resilience
- [and] the development of patience, humility, and wisdom.
If you’re really interested in digging a bit deeper, there’s an excellent article also on PositivePsychology.com called The Neuroscience of Gratitude and How It Affects Anxiety & Grief which I’ll include the link to in the transcript (find it here) — it’s a lot more in-depth than what I’m going into today and cites a whole bunch of research, but it’s summed up nicely by this paragraph at the end:
“Gratitude is about feeling the right way, about the right things, and at the right time. It is inseparably linked with self-discipline and motivation. It may not give us instant relief from pain and stress, but it brings the feeling of control back to us.”Madhuleena Roy Chowdhury, source: https://positivepsychology.com/neuroscience-of-gratitude/
I talk almost non-stop in this podcast about accepting that the only things you can control are your own words, actions and feelings, and what gratitude does is put you in the driver’s seat in terms of how you feel about the good, the bad and the downright-shitty in life. You may not be able to control what happens around you, but you certainly can control how you respond to it — and responding in a way that incorporates gratitude helps you to focus more on the positives. And so with that said, let’s get into the how-to part of this week’s episode…
How to be more grateful every day
It might come as no surprise to any of my regular listeners that I’m going to start this section talking about choice. This episode is part of a series of four in the month of September 2020 focused on mindset (i.e. How you think about things) and the most important factor with mindset is that you always have a choice about how you think about things in life. That doesn’t mean you can just wave your magic wand and conjure up exactly what you want (unless you’re one of the Sanderson sisters from Hocus Pocus…), but it means that you are in full control of how you choose to respond to the things that happen around you and in the greater world, as well as being in control of what you choose to do with your thoughts.
So when it comes to gratitude, it all begins with making a conscious choice each day to be grateful — you can choose to focus on the positive, you can choose to focus on the negative, or you can even choose to focus on nothing at all, but the opposite of gratefulness is being ungrateful which is a pretty shitty way to live. Also there’s something to be said here about this being probably one of the very few areas in life where I’m not an advocate of the “balance is to be found in all things” mindset. Let me explain what I mean: the idea of balance is about looking at all sides and finding a solution that fits somewhere in the middle, however when it comes to gratitude that ‘middle ground’ between grateful and ungrateful is indifference, and I really believe that indifference is just not a particularly pleasant way to live. Could you imagine going through life just never feeling anything? I mean, it might sound ideal if you’re struggling with depression or anxiety (and I’ve had both, and still have anxiety, so I kind-of get the appeal…) but life is about the ups and the downs, light and dark, day and night, and so if we choose to be grateful for the good stuff that happens (internally and externally) then we will begin to notice more good stuff, which in turn helps us to deal with the bad stuff if and when it happens. It begins with a choice to be more grateful every day.
Next, take some time to focus on what you appreciate in life — there are hundreds, if not thousands, of apps you can download for your devices that claim to help you focus on gratitude but it really is just overcomplicating what is actually a very simple activity: starting by asking yourself what you appreciate in life, and making a list. ‘Gratitude’ is just another word for ‘appreciate’, and thinking about it this way can make it easier to start identifying the good things in your life, no matter how small (I started doing this at the beginning of 2019 and one of the first things on my original list, which I just dug out while writing this episode, was being able to order groceries online for click and collect… it might not seem like a lot to others, but it meant a lot to me and still does because it saves me from having to go into the store for my groceries which makes me anxious!) Even if you only come up with a few things to start with, it’s still a few things more than zero. You can (and should) focus on everything, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant… and this list is just for you, so don’t worry about what’s on it (mine is littered with references to my favourite TV shows and I have absolutely no shame about that fact!); you can make it even easier by doing this in a note on your phone (which is what I do for everything) or you can just write it down, whatever works for you. Revisit the list often (at least every couple of weeks) and add to it, and over time you will see it grow into a meaningful list full of all the great stuff in your life.
Also, incorporate gratitude practice into your daily routine — this is one that you’ll hear over and over again, often presented in increasingly complex ways and completely over-engineered to the point of making you feel like you need to twist yourself into the shape of a pretzel in order to do it effectively (you don’t by the way, which is lucky for me as I have zero flexibility!). Grab a notebook or open a new note on your phone and take a few minutes each day to reflect and capture a few things you’re grateful for. Now, I’ve read a lot of different articles and research papers on gratitude and you might come across instructions telling you it has to be different things each day — no, it doesn’t. If you’re really grateful for the same three or four things every day then more power to you; it’s not a test, and this list isn’t for anybody other than yourself. I do mine every morning (and I’ll come back to that in a moment) and I can tell you that my partner, our cat (as well as our previous cat who passed away) and the fact that we live in the country feature on my list every single day without fail, because they are the things I am most grateful for in life. Now, I choose to also add at least a couple of additional things on every day and I like to challenge myself to find different things to acknowledge, because it’s all part of expanding my ability to appreciate as much as possible… but you do what works for you, and if that’s being grateful for your bed being cozy then you know what? Good on you!
Now I mentioned that I do my gratitude practice in the morning every day, and that’s about choosing to start the day with a gratitude mindset. This helps to frame the day in a more positive way and it can be particularly helpful if you’re dealing with depression or anxiety.
And then another way you can incorporate more gratitude into your day is to finish off each day with a bit of mindful reflection. I talked about reflection back in Episode 12 and it’s a way of looking back over what has happened without judgement so that you can identify what worked well, plus helping you to focus on what you can learn (instead of negative emotions) when things didn’t go so well. Check out Episode 12 for a more in-depth look at reflection, but basically what I’m talking about here is taking a few moments each night to reflect on:
- one or two things you learned during the day,
- if something didn’t go well, anything you might do differently in future if faced with a similar situation (but the trick here is to be focused objectively on the lesson since you cannot change what has or hasn’t happened; by focusing on what you can take away from the situation, you are better able to turn a negative into a positive because if it helps you to grow then even negative events can serve a positive purpose in the long-run), and
- one or two things that you appreciate from the day.
I tend to treat this as being a way of putting a lid on the day’s events and letting go, because it allows me to take a step back and look at the day from a more thought-out perspective rather than just getting bogged down by the emotional side (that doesn’t mean I don’t have the emotions; it just helps to distract me from the negative ones for long enough that I can start to process them a bit more rationally — I have anxiety and I can be prone to over-thinking, so I find this often helps to calm my mind and refocus my energy on the stuff I can appreciate instead, especially since I finish that activity on a positive note). I mentioned earlier in the episode that the not-so-great things (or even the downright shitty things) that happen in life can serve to teach us, and so in that sense they can have a little bit of the positive in them (even if that ‘little bit’ is practically microscopic!). It can take a lot of time to get to that place (and it’s worthwhile noting here, as I usually do, that dealing with serious issues or trauma is something you should do with a qualified counsellor or therapist) however this process of daily reflection with a gratitude mindset can help you to begin this process of shaping your mindset to look for — and appreciate — the lessons in things that happen.
And finally, as you’re working through what you’re grateful for and what you appreciate in your life, look at your overall health and consider each aspect. Your health is made up of multiple parts: physical, mental, spiritual, emotional, social and financial… and so when you’re considering what you’re grateful for this can be a good starting point in terms of helping you to connect with all of these components. For example, even if you’ve got multiple bills to pay you can still focus on the positive in terms of having a roof over your head, which is a really important part of financial health (and you don’t need to be rich or draped in Gucci to be financially healthy!). Another example is emotional health, which is a component of your overall mental health that focuses on how aware you are of your emotions and how well you deal with them (just a side note here: ‘mental health’ refers to your overall psychological health, including lots of different aspects such as your ability to learn, to form and maintain relationships, etc. — emotional and social health are closely linked to mental health, as are all of the aspects of health I mentioned, but I split them out because they have a very big impact on how we experience life and so need specific attention). Most of us know the experience of emotions that crop up from nowhere and make us think things we might not want to, which then leads to influencing how we feel, but it’s what we do with those emotions and feelings that matter, and so being able to recognise when you’re feeling ‘flat’ and then doing something to cheer yourself up or change your mood is actually something worth being grateful for, because that’s you taking control of your emotional well-being. So start exploring the different aspects of your overall health and consider what you are grateful for in each area — physical, mental, spiritual, emotional, social and financial.
Summary and Close-Out
Because when it comes to gratitude and mental health, what it all boils down to is this: gratitude, like so much of your mindset and even your life, is a choice. It’s a choice that you make to focus on what’s good in life, what you appreciate and what you feel fortunate for, and no matter how difficult things might be, there’s always something to be thankful about. Even if that’s a sunset, or a hug from a loved one, it’s not about needing to find enormous things that have some sort of material value — because what truly matters in life is recognising that it’s the little things that have the biggest impact and will make us feel the happiest in the long term. It’s the people who love you, the things that make your soul sing, and the beauty of the world around you which matter the most, and when you spend time each day focusing on what you’re grateful for, then the amount of good stuff you see all around you — and inside of you — will become bigger and bigger every day.
Each week I like to finish up by sharing a quote about the week’s topic, and I encourage you to take a few moments to really reflect on it and consider what it means to you. This week’s quote is by the 19th century French critic and novelist Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr, and it is:
“Some people are always grumbling because roses have thorns; I am thankful that thorns have roses.”Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr
Next week I’ll be talking about optimism. Next week’s episode goes out on the 5th of October here in Australia (the afternoon/evening of the 4th in most other countries), and it’s a special one for me because there are two big things happening that week: the 10th is World Mental Health Day (plus there are lots of mental health events around the world in the month of October) and the 7th will be the first anniversary of Let’s Talk About Mental Health, so I’ve decided to make the episodes in October all about the foundations of good mental health: four topics that go to the heart of all the things I talk about throughout this podcast and in my writing. So in next week’s episode I’ll be talking about what optimism is (and more specifically, what ‘realistic optimism’ is), why it’s a big part of good mental health, and how to be more realistically optimistic.
I hope you’ll join me for that episode, which will be released on Monday morning in Australia & New Zealand, Sunday evening in the UK, Ireland & Europe, and Sunday afternoon in the US & Canada.
You can find past episodes and additional content at the website which is letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au. You can also find Let’s Talk About Mental Health on Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest as @ltamentalhealth, and discover additional content on the Let’s Talk About Mental Health YouTube channel (click here) — if you haven’t already subscribed to the YouTube channel please do as there will be a lot of extra content coming to that platform very soon.
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Thank you very much for joining me today – look after yourself and make a conscious effort to share positivity and kindness in the world, because you get back what you put out. Take care and talk to you next time.
Let’s Talk About Mental Health.
Because the more we talk about it, the easier it gets.
Let’s Talk About Mental Health. © 2020 Jeremy Godwin.