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Gratitude Can Make a Difference

By Dr. Beau A. Nelson, DBH, LCSW

Many of us are looking for ways to make ourselves happier. We are looking for ways to make the most out of life. We are looking for the quality in life and the ways we can maximize what we have. For many of us, we beat ourselves up daily about not being good enough, not being good looking like others, comparing ourselves to pop-stars and models and hating our bodies. It is a very slippery slope that leads down and down. Most of us can recognize the negative effects of thinking this way. We know when we are obsessed with worries and problems we feel the anxiety and the fear that comes with that. We know that we are often demotivated when we only look at the problems in life and focus on the hurtful memories or words we have heard. In fact, it is not hard to see that we become quite unbearable when we are self-obsessed and negative in our world view. Studies have shown that people who are depressed generally report more “doom and gloom” thinking. One of the most successful psychological theories actually works to change thinking. By doing so, research has proven positive results on mood (called Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy).

So, if we know that negative thoughts can make us feel more down or anxious, what would it feel like if we changed our thinking? What would it mean to be grateful for what we have, the niceties that are done to us, the pluses in our lives as opposed to focusing on the negatives. What it would mean is that, as research shows, we feel different. Now, one moment of gratitude is not going to change you from a sad sack to the person loving life. You are going to have to try a little bit harder, you have to make it part of your life. There really is something to positive thinking and studies show that gratitude, practiced regularly, can help some people to feel more hopeful, more connected, and more motivated for life.

I have always been a spiritual person, and I believe in something greater than myself. However, there are times when this seems to be too far away to comfort me, and I get lost in the negative thoughts and the trials of life. When I was 17, my mother died of breast cancer and about 6-months later, my grandmother (her mother) died. These two women meant the world to me. It was probably one of the most difficult times in my life. My grief turned into depression and I even thought at times that life was not worth living. Unfortunately, I did not have adults or people in my life that directed me to professional help. So, I struggled. And I struggled for a long time.

My situation changed when I went to college, but I can remember not wanting to get out of bed I was so exhausted by grief and sadness. I was able to talk to some people and through the process of talking, I started to see things differently and I started, just a little at first, to be grateful of the time I had with my mother and my grandmother. I started to remember better times and rather than focus on that they were gone, I would think on how lucky I was to have two amazing women in my life. They taught me how to laugh, how to cook, and how to care for those I loved. I actually started to talk more about my losses. I remember hearing myself say one day that I was lucky to no longer think that my mom and grandmother were limited to a person, because I was able to have them with me, watching over me, all the time, anywhere.

I began to practice gratitude as a spiritual discipline. There were many other challenges that hit me in the next three years, including estrangement from my family, having zero dollars for school, dropping out of college, and moving because I could no longer afford to live out of state. But through it all, I was grateful for what I had. I noticed the small things that brought joy. I learned that many of the best things in life are free. I learned to be thankful for my strength and my determination. I learned that good things did continue to happen to me. All of this helped me to feel more motivated and it helped me to move on and go on. That was my gratitude story and now, more than 25 years later, I still practice this today. It works now better than it did then.

I studied the effects of gratitude in psychology, because psychology is my job and my passion. There are numerous studies that show there are ways to channel gratitude to help mood, to increase feeling connected, and to motivate yourself and others. I think it is something for us all to contemplate. Is my thinking helping or hurting me? Can I change my attitude? Do I have nothing to be grateful for? It’s a good question to start thinking about and maybe it will help you to see that this could make a difference for you. I’m grateful I had the chance to share this with you, today.

Dr. Nelson is the Clinical Director at The Florida House Experience, an innovative healthcare provider of substance abuse, mental health, and neuroscience services in Deerfield Beach, Florida.