Therapeutic Gratitude

By Scott Westerman

I recently spent some time with Dacher Keltner, a perpetual student of the art and science of emotional wellbeing. He reminded me of one of its great prerequisites: Gratitude.

This came home to me in a powerful way the morning after. A brave friend who deals with clinical depression uses gratitude as a weapon to beat back the monster. “I’m really struggling with my anxiety and depression tonight,” she wrote to her Facebook family, “and even though asking for help is one of my least favorite things to do….here it goes. I need your help. And what makes me feel better is helping others, and making them feel good. So! Like this post, and I will tag you in a comment below and say something I admire about you. Let’s spread some positivity around, folks!”

The response was a shower of empathy and affection for her many positive qualities, not the least of which is courage. And it was an opportunity for her to ponder the beauty of her own existence and to write about the dimensions of these cherished friends that she’s grateful for.

Dacher invited us to do some deep breathing and to think about people we were grateful for. That was an easy exercise for me, my iWatch seems to know when I need to breathe and tells me to do so with regularity. I soon found myself texting a half dozen of these extraordinary people to let them know that when I closed my eyes to think about the good people in my life, theirs were among the faces I saw.

On the flip side, there are situations that trigger opposite emotions; memories of people who have hurt us, whom we have hurt and situations we wish we could have handled differently. These visceral bullets to the temple constrict our circulatory system, raise blood pressure to pour fuel into our fight or flight metabolism, and dump a generous shot of acid into our stomachs.

Spontaneously reliving of our disasters is a protective device left over from our hunter-gatherer days, when our higher brains were not quite so sophisticated. Manifesting empathy and forgiveness for all involved, especially ourselves, can be hard to do. But it’s a skill that can be learned through practice. Like the bubble meditation, we can encase dark past events in the protective shell of experiential wisdom and study them from the perspective of life experience for what they really are. Gratitude inevitably ensues.

Emerson wrote, “Cultivate the habit of being grateful for every good thing that comes to you, and to give thanks continuously. And because all things have contributed to your advancement, you should include all things in your gratitude.”

I would add that even the bad things that befall us can include silver linings for which we can be grateful. It’s the darkness in the valleys of our lives that gives us an appreciation for the view from the summit of our achievements.

The next time you’re afraid, depressed, angry or uncertain, try injecting some gratitude into your attitude. It’s prescription with few unpleasant side effects. And it can be contagious!

One Reply to “Therapeutic Gratitude”

  1. Scott, you could sit in an Alanon meeting and fit right in. Letting go of anger/ resentment and combining that release with gratitude for the people and events that affect us (for good and bad) are part of the secret sauce in the program. They can provide the means and emotions for living serenely with the effects of alcoholism or drug addiction on our families and friends.

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