As we celebrate the things we are thankful for in this extraordinary environment of social distancing, an experience I had with therapeutic gratitude in the summer of 2017 came back to me. It feels appropriate for this time and place.
I had the opportunity to meet Dacher Keltner at a conference that summer. Dacher is a perpetual student of the art and science of emotional well being. He’s also Co-Director of the Greater Good Science Center at Berkley. Dacher reminded me of one of the great prerequisites of mental health: Gratitude.
As often happens in the wake of a new insight, I saw therapeutic gratitude in action the next morning. 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.
When Dacher works with large groups, he invites them to do some deep breathing and to think about people they are grateful for. That’s an easy exercise for me, my iWatch seems to know when I need to breathe and tells me to do so with regularity. After reading my friend’s powerful post, I found myself texting a half dozen of the people in my inner circle of support. I let them know that when I closed my eyes to think about the good spirits 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. They 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.
This year has been particularly challenging. Every one of us is carrying a higher level of anxiety and uncertainty, perhaps the greatest burden of stress we’ve known in a lifetime. The holidays seem to amplify our sensitivities If you’re feeling afraid, depressed, angry or uncertain, try injecting some therapeutic gratitude into your attitude. It’s prescription with few unpleasant side effects. And it is one virus that can be both contagious and healing at the same time.
Wishing you and yours a safe, healthy and renewing holiday season. Thank you for reading these messages. I hope that they add as much value for you as researching and writing them does for me.