Carly’s Couch — Why is gratitude such an effective tool in managing low moods and promoting mental health? In this episode I discuss the reasons I practice gratitude, the ways to cultivate it, and the reasons people resist it.
You’re listening to On the Couch With Carly. Carly’s Couch is a safe space to talk. I’m a psychologist. But I’m not your pipe-smoking, tweed-wearing stereotype.
Hello and welcome to another episode of On the Couch With Carly. I’m Carly, and today we’re going to talk about gratitude. Gratitude is something that I have been banging on about on my blog since the day I started it. When I started the blog I wanted to have a weekly feature, something that gave the blog a bit of continuity, and a bit of a rhythm. I also wanted to find something that would engage people, and hopefully would be a great add-on benefit for people who read the blog. So, I started this thing called, “Gratitude Wednesdays”. And really the idea was a check in for everyone to just go: “Hang on, what are we grateful for?”
The thing about gratitude is that it’s got such amazing benefits, and I’m going to tell you a little bit about that in a bit. What you really need to know for now is that gratitude really is about considering and counting your blessings, about thinking about things that you have, things that you can say you are thankful for in your life. It’s like changing the script, flipping the script to be a bit more positive.
And it really is brilliant for combating negative moods, for combating those moments when we’re feeling a bit down. It’s a great: “Pick me up”. But it can also be an amazing practise that becomes almost like a way of life. So it is a bit, sort of, sunshine and rainbows, that sort of thing. It can be a little bit: “Ooh just be grateful.” But if I didn’t know that it worked so well, I would be like: “ Urgh, gross that’s so American.”, or something. It is actually so effective. That’s what I wanna to talk to you about today.
So, there’s research that it has been done on gratitude. I’m not going to bore you with the science of it, but I’ve got a few studies that I can share, if you really are interested. The research is showing that this is very effective as a tool for combating psychological difficulties. Now, initially all the research was being done on well people, just looking at everyday people talking about the things they’re grateful for, and to just give thanks, or to write thank you notes to people, whether that really has an impact on their mood. And it does.
But they’ve also just recently, a couple of years, they’ve been doing research on mental health patients. People who are seeking mental health services. So, as is the case with research, it’s always done at universities. They had 300 university students do a randomized controlled trial, and they compared the results to see what actually does gratitude do, if it does make a difference.
And they looked at people that are already identifying themselves as having difficulties, who are accessing mental health services. If they were instructed to write letters of thanks, I think they had to it weekly, for 3 weeks- that’s the intervention. Then they tested it. They tested it 3 weeks after it, then they tested it 12 weeks after it. And they measured the well-being of participants.
And all of the scores show that the people who had written the gratitude journals, written out thank you notes, were doing much, much better than the other groups. And they listed in this article a few of the reasons why they think that that is. And the main reason which I think is something that we can all use, and I think that’s what I love the most about it, is that it is things you can do at home, with your self, in your mind. You don’t need to go to a psychologist, although it’s not going to be as beneficial as therapy, it’s not going to replace the benefits of therapy. But even if you come to therapy, you’re still going to be with yourself for the rest of the time. It’s so nice to have a tool, one of the greatest tools is gratitude.
So this is how it works. If I’m thinking about this bad thing that has happened to me, or I’m only aware of the negative emotions that I’m feeling, or the negative thoughts that are going through my mind.
So let’s say I’m studying and I’m feeling really nervous about the upcoming exam. And the only thing I can think about is that if I don’t pass then I’m maybe going to have to repeat, and if I repeat maybe I’m not going to get into the school that I want to get into- and it’s a downward spiral.
So, what gratitude does is, the word they use is, it unshackles you from toxic emotions. The way I like to think of it, is it gives you an alternative path for your mind to go down. So if your mind is going down a negative path…. Lemme tell you about negativity… it’s soooo easy. Our brains just go right for it. So if you start to think about all the negative things, all the worries, all the anxieties, really it’s so easy to get stuck there with all that stuff. I’m not saying don’t be aware of your negative thoughts. There’s nothing wrong with negative thoughts. There nothing wrong with negative emotions. You have to be aware of them, you have to include them as part of who you are, we are not always happy, we not always thankful, we not always feeling great. And that’s okay. You’ve got to honour those moments.
And especially those emotions if they’re connected to something meaningful. I mean, gosh if you’ve been affected by something that has devastated you, please feel those feelings. This is not a time to impose gratitude but I think gratitude is amazing for when you’re stuck in a little bit of a loop with your negative thoughts.
Or if you’re struggling, very often depression and anxiety, you’re not fixated on things that are actually really problematic. You associating something with something negative, and you can change that association.
So what it does is, by thinking about what you are grateful for, or by saying to someone else what you grateful for what they’re doing in your life, or to share that idea of gratitude with someone else. You are changing that thought pattern, and shifting your focus away from the negative association to the positive, or just to the gratitude.
You know, I don’t think gratitude has to be about: “I have it all.” It doesn’t have to be about: “I’ve got it all. I’m perfect. It’s amazing.”
I think we get so caught up by this idea that either it’s got to be perfect or it’s a failure. That all or nothing thinking is so dangerous. So if you’re saying: “Because I don’t have x, y and z, my life is in shambles.”
That’s a very toxic way of viewing it. However if you look at your life and you say: “Okay, well I am grateful that I have these people around me, who care about me, and wanna know about my problems. Even when I’m feeling shit they’re still around.”
Or: “I’m grateful that even though I’m really nervous about this upcoming exam. I know that I have done enough work in the term. That I do have some marks that count in my favour. I also am grateful that I have a lecturer who I have a relationship with, so I can talk to about what my results are incase there is something that I feel is unfair, or whatever.”
It’s about saying: “What do I have?” Rather than: What do I not have?” I also think it’s a great approach to have in relationships. So, long-term relationships in particular, long-term friendships, long-term intimate partner relationships-they can be really hard to maintain. You know, the beginning stages, it’s exciting, it’s fun, specifically if you are with an intimate partner. There’s the whole excitement of falling in love, and your brain chemistry is going all crazy, it’s just like a big high. And that high eventually will mellow out, those brain chemicals are just not going to be doing their thing as much they were in the beginning. And you’ve got to choose every single day to be grateful, and to have an attitude of gratitude- as they say.
So, to look at your partner, your partner is never going to fulfill all of your needs. No one can perfectly meet all of your needs, all of the time. There’s going to be moments when your partner is a disappointment, fails you in some way even. And of course, you have a right to be upset about those things. It’s not about denying those emotions. But it’s also about saying: “I feel my feelings, it does feel shit. I’m having this experience but in the next moment, I’m going to choose gratitude.”
“So I’m going to look at what I do have in this partner. I’m going to look at what he does, what she does offer me. I’m going to look at how I can just focus my attention on what is there, rather than what is not there.” And that’s hugely beneficial.
So, the reason this works so well is that it’s got this added benefit of really shifting your mind’s eye, and changing the neural patterns. Your brain isn’t orientating towards the negative, it’s orientating towards what is there, what makes you feel good, what makes you feel at ease. And that immediately has an impact on your emotional nervous systems. So it really does work.
Just before I go into how we can cultivate gratitude. I just want to say I looked at some other research just to see what was the conclusions that would draw in around all the research. How does gratitude benefit us?
And these are the benefits: It improves our relationships. It also creates new opportunities for relationships. So if I express thanks to people, like simple simple situations. Like I go to the shop, and someone’s helping me with my groceries, instead of just looking right past them, and just doing it like a robot, you know, pay, bye, whatever. To actually look them in the eyes and say: “Thank you so much for your help today.”
Its so crazy but that is not just going to be for that person, who it may make their day. But let me tell you what it’s going to do to you. Your brain is going to be flooded with some good old-fashioned serotonin and dopamine. You’re gonna feel good about yourself. This is going to be a moment where you gonna walk away feeling positive, feeling like something is being added. And it may increase a connection, maybe someone will say to you: “Oh, thank you so much for saying that to me today. I really needed to hear that, you know.”, whatever.
“I’m feeling bad today. I’m feeling tired.” And then you have a conversation although it’s just someone at the supermarket, it is so beneficial to have those moments of connection. And they are good for us, it’s good for us to connect with other human beings. We feel better when we’re connecting with other people. We feel better when people look us in the eye and show that they’re interested in us. That actually really helps us. It’s a great tool.
Okay, the other thing is: Gratitude is shown to be amazing for your health. It has actual health benefits. The reason for this is because if you are grateful for your health and if you are grateful for the life that you living, you going to take care of it better. It’s just simple. Anyone who values something would take better care of it. So if you are acknowledging, and noticing, and recording, literally recording the things that you value about your life- this will actually increase your awareness of it’s value. It will make your life feel more valuable because you’re saying it. You’re making it concrete by writing it, or putting it down, or thinking it.
Okay, it also increases your psychological health. So the research shows that it increases happiness, it decreases depression. I would also say it’s amazing for, and this has also been proven, it’s amazing for increasing your empathy towards other people. And also it decreases aggression.
So, when you’re grateful you are less likely to become insecure, or envious. You sleep better when you grateful, apparently if you write down what you grateful for before you go to sleep, you will sleep deeper and longer-if you didn’t. How’s that?
It’s great for self-esteem. You compare yourself less. If you grateful for yourself and for your life. So I’m sure every single one of you, if you on social media, would have had the experience of scrolling through social media. Looking at someone else’s page or feed, or whatever you want to call it, and having that feeling of: “Ah, damn. I wish my life was like this. Why am I not more x, y, z?”
And social media is unfortunately terrible for this, we compare ourselves. But you have to remember that this social media thing, its not real. It’s someone else’s highlight reel. And that is what we have to look at it as. Someone is projecting out into the world what their highlights are, and that’s great. Let them project their highlights but know that you can’t compare your life with that. That’s not an accurate comparison.
But what’s amazing is, if you are grateful for your life. So in that moment when you look at that person’s page and you see: “Okay that person’s out at that club that I’ve never been to. I really wanna go to that club.”
Or : “Ahhh, that person’s got a husband and a baby, and I don’t have anything like that.” Yes if you compare yourself, and you only see what they have, and what you don’t have-you will feel shit.
But if you stop and you say: “Let’s rather do a gratitude exercise.” And you instead put down 5 reasons, why you are grateful for your life right now, why your feed is special to you, why it matters, why it’s more meaningful. You’ll feel better.
Ja okay, you not necessarily going to be 100% satisfied but you going to be far more satisfied than if you were just looking at that person’s feed and comparing it straight out. So I really think that that’s another great benefit.
The other thing is thing that they say in the research: Gratitude is actually great for increasing mental strength, which I thought was quite interesting, and overcoming trauma, and it fosters resilience.
What the research participants were looking at were world war veterans, and also people who had witnessed the twin towers being bombed. And how if they got those victims to every week to consider the things that they’re grateful for in their life, they actually saw that they reduce their symptoms dramastically. Dramastically… hahaha.… Drastically.. Dramatically… Drastically. Okay I’m making up words here….
So, basically, it works guys, and that’s the only reason why I do bang on about it. But it’s not necessarily that easy to do. So I’m going to first tell you how to do it, then I’m going to talk about why we don’t do it.
So, these are the ways that we can cultivate gratitude. #Number 1: You can write a thank you note but you don’t have to share it with anyone. So gratitude is not contingent on someone else knowing that you’re grateful. It is just as effective if all you do is tell yourself what you’re grateful for. But if you want to, you can actually make it concrete and physically write a thankful note, a thank you note to someone.
Or to just, for example, someone gives you shit service at the customer service. You could write a crappy letter or you could reframe it and think about the things that you saw that were done well by the company, or whatever it may be. Don’t do it because in that situation you’d probably be victorolic, and write about these crap people, and they do this crap thing. You going to feel crap after that. You just going to feel angry, and frustrated, and tense.
Whereas, if you write that you grateful for their service, and there’s just a few things that you’d like to point out. And you write what you’re grateful for: “ I’m really glad it just came on time. I’m really glad that it was packaged the way it was. Unfortunately when it came back it was broken.” Or whatever it may be.
But the point is, you start with what you’re grateful for. You’re going to feel better. Don’t do it for anyone else, do it for yourself. You’re going to feel better and that’s the reason to do it.
Okay, so that’s the first thing. Then, if you don’t actually wanna write something physically to anyone, or it’s not about anyone. It’s just about you, then there are amazing self tools that you can use.
So you can literally just write it mentally in your mind, or you can physically write down a list. I always opt for the gratitude journals, the gratitude list approach. So, honestly I’ve used this on myself. You’re having a shitty day, maybe you haven’t eaten, so your blood sugar’s low. Something happens and you get frustrated, something small can happen and you feel frustrated. And you zoom into a crappy mood. You just go: Whoa, I’m in this crappy mood.”, and suddenly everything is sh**t. “Urgh, I hate this and I hate that. I can’t believe that I’m shit, that I never do this”…. So easy to get stuck into that mood.
But if you remember, and you say to yourself: “Hold on. Lemme quickly just write a gratitude list”. You won’t believe how good it makes you feel. And a gratitude list is literally just sitting down, and you can decide, 5 things that I’m grateful for right now.
And you can start big. “My health. My family. The fact that I’m safe, right now.” I think it really important when you’re dealing with trauma, the first thing you must always say is: “I’m safe now. I’m safe now.” Even if you have to say that to yourself everyday…you have to say it everyday. Every minute of every day: “I’m safe now. I’m safe now. That trauma is devastating but I’m not in it anymore. I’m safe now. I’m safe now.”
It’s not about winning. Its not about being the best at something. It’s just about noticing the things that do matter in your life, that you do have. “So yes I might be hungry. Yes, I might be annoyed with what’s happening. Yes I might be hurt by someone but lemme just refocus about the things that are going well. About the things that I’m grateful for. The things that I truly, truly… if it was taken away from me, I would be devastated. So let me look at the things that I have right now.”
And then, a gratitude journal is basically just something that you carry around with you. And you write down everytime you have a grateful thought, or if you wanna write a gratitude list, you write it in your gratitude journal. Some people do a daily entry into their gratitude journal, that has amazing benefits. Some people do gratitude lists with their partners in their beds before they go to sleep. You literally just say 3 things you’re grateful for, from the day. Honestly it has really has an impact. It makes such a big difference.
So, the other examples that the study gave for things that you can do that will cultivate gratitude is, counting your blessings. So it’s pretty much the same thing. Praying, so if you have religious beliefs or spiritual beliefs. Prayer is also a way of connecting to that source of saying: “ This is what I have. This is what I’ve been given that I’m grateful for.”
Then also things like mindfulness and meditation. It’s really about focusing your mind and saying: “Here, I am in this moment, and this is what I have. This is what I consider my blessings, and it’s real to me. It’s meaningful to me.
So those are some things you can do. But why don’t we do it? I’m assuming that quite a few of you might already know about gratitude, or at least about the idea of gratitude is beneficial. And if you followed me, you’ll know that I talk about it all the time. But why don’t we put ourselves out there and just share what we’re grateful for or connect with our own gratitude lists every now and again?
So I think, if I can reflect back on what I was saying in the beginning of the episode. When we are confronted with positivity or people say: “C’mon put a smile on your dial”. It’s irritating. It’s irritating to be told when you’re having a shit time: “ Just be happy. Just feel good”.
We resist actually leaving that crap place that we’re in. And there’s actually amazing research, I don’t have the study on hand right now, but I’ve read it before. There’s amazing research to show that we get addicted to negative thoughts, and negative feelings. And we really start to feel this… I remember a client described it to me as a “sad blanket”. You hold onto this pain but it’s sort of comforting to wallow into your misery. And it’s really true.
And there’s all sorts of other societal, and cultural reasons for this. I think we’ve totally romanticized darkness. In music and in popular culture, being hardcore, and dark, and serious is so much more cool. Than being cheerful, and fun, and delightful. It’s like how people say: “ Urgh, pop music.”
But hello, I just want you all to know, I freaken love pop music . Let’s just remember that pop music is selling more than anyone else, and there a reason for that. And that’s because people want to connect with that feeling of lightness, of levity, of not being so serious.
So yes, I think we have to get past our own barriers. The voices in our head that goes: “ Urgh, it’s so uncool. Urgh, it’s not gonna work. Urgh, it’s a waste of my time, it’s silly.”- all of that stuff.
I think all of that is really just fear. Fear of finding a new thought pattern, a new way of being. I think we stay in our old thought patterns, and we hold onto the crutch of neurosis. Rather than to free ourselves, and then have to take responsibility for our own existences because we are now free, and liberated, and in the unknown.
So, my challenge to you is today… take the challenge, take the gratitude challenge. I want you to attempt to use gratitude in your life somehow. To try and make it a practise, and I want to ask you to lemme know how it goes. So the next time you realize that you’re having a bunch of negative thoughts, you are taken into a dark place because you didn’t know that those thoughts have an impact on how you feel, on how you behave.
And as soon as you’re feeling that, and you’re aware of it- I want you to start using a gratitude exercise, whatever one you want to do. Just taking the moment, instead of grumbling about what you don’t have, or being pissed off, or sad about something. To instead just focus your mind on what you do have, and that’s what you can be grateful for. Check it out. See how it works. See if it makes a difference.
Now, just remember, when I say make a difference , I’m not talking about the difference of going from sad, ten out of ten sadness to zero out of ten sadness. When we talk about a difference, we talking about a shift. It doesn’t have to be a radical shift. It doesn’t mean that you are not going to be depressed anymore, or you not going to feel sad feelings anymore. Or that moment is going to be a perfect, happy moment. It’s about just alleviating it.
Did it shift? Did it change? Did it reduce? Did you find any reduction in those negative symptoms? Any reduction is good enough.
If it went down from a six to a five, a six to a four- great. That’s good enough for me. I don’t need you to go have a radical change. It’s not about radical shifting. It’s about incremental shifts. So just be aware that’s what we talking about. We talking about the gentle alleviation of symptoms.
So ja, I’m all for it, and I’d love to hear how your gratitude exercises go. And ja, thanks for listening to me today. And please subscribe. And we’ll speak to you soon. Cheers.
This podcast is recorded at Edible Audio in Cape Town, South Africa. Edited by Edible Audio. Original music by Alex Smillie.