Gratitude: Finding light in the darkness
– Heather Putney, PhD, LMFT, CSAT, EFT, EMDR
As November rolls around and the season of Thanksgiving approaches, thoughts of blessings and practicing gratitude fill my mind and heart. The wisdom of practicing gratitude reaches far deeper than a mere sentiment. The literature is replete with scientific evidence of the positive effects of practicing gratitude on the mental health and wellbeing of mankind. Some of the benefits include: reduced risk of suicide, increased happiness, hope, health, and better relationships.
But as I write this today, my mind is called back to a November season earlier in my life when the practice of gratitude was not just a good idea, but a life-saving practice. You see, many years prior to that dark November, I had been taught the importance of daily gratitude by a good friend. At the time, I was in my early 20’s, living in a country that was not my own, serving people I barely knew, attempting to speak a language I could barely understand, and feeling like a total failure. The only thing I was good at, it seemed, was picking out my own flaws and how things didn’t seem to be going my way. If they had a Gold-Medal for Pessimism, I would have been a prime contender. This might seem really funny for those who know me now, but my current nature, one of general optimism, was hard won, and began when a dear friend taught me the power of gratitude during this rocky season.
My friend was also doing service in a country far away with a lot of challenges, yet she approached life with joy and optimism. In order to help me, she challenged me to practice daily gratitude by reporting back “Tres Buenas Cosas” (three good things) at the end of every day. She also would share her “Tres Buenas Cosas” with me. Knowing that I would be required to share something at the end of the day, my perfectionist part took the challenge and started paying attention to something to share that evening. I know it might sound trite, but that changed everything! I was still in a foreign country, serving with people I barely knew, speaking a language I could barely understand, and yet, all of the sudden, I started to feel joy! How was that possible? All that changed was my focus, and that made all the difference. By looking for good, instead of bad (like my pessimistic part loves to do), I started to find good. The more good I found, the more I felt blessed, the more I appreciated the simple joys in life, the more happiness I felt radiate through me and towards others. The other incredible thing was how quickly it shifted my mood and lived experience. Within a few short days, the grey fog began to lift. With this in mind, let us fast forward around 10 years.
It was early November and themes of thanksgiving and gratitude were on my mind. At the time, I was a part-time volunteer leader of a youth group. Wanting the youth to learn the importance of Gratitude like I had years before, I stocked myself and the girls with Dollar Store notebooks, cool pens, and a challenge to write down “Tres Buenas Cosas’ ‘ each day in November. At the end of the month we would check back in and see how our Gratitude experiment went. Little did I know that the darkest season of my life would hit within the next week. It was like the rug was pulled right out from under me and my world turned upside down. As I think back on this time, the darkness still amazes me. It was a season where some of my deepest fears came true and my greatest weaknesses were laid bare. I felt sad, scared, alone and not good enough. Yet, on my nightstand lay that silly Dollar Store notebook. Looking back, I don’t know how I did it, but I managed to make myself find 3 good things to record each night. Some nights it took me some anguish to screen the day and find something good about it. But with time, it got easier and easier. I started to notice things like old friends reaching out, receiving notes, care packages, visits, and late night calls to soothe a distraught me who wasn’t sure how I could make it one more day. The sadness and despair was overwhelming. And yet, as I looked for 3 good things, I inevitably found them, and sometimes more. These tender mercies became my light in the darkness, that helped off-set the intensity of my despair. And, like the old song by the Byrds, Turn!Turn! Turn! This season did eventually turn, though much slower than traditional seasons. Eventually, after being brought to my knees, I experienced the blessings of post-traumatic growth and healing that only comes after struggle. The season of mourning, doubt, fear, and insecurity gave way to increased confidence, a deeper connection with my self-worth, increased faith, forgiveness, new beginnings and redemption. The season of refining was excruciating! Yet I truly was not alone, or forgotten. That little Gratitude Journal likely saved my life at that time and recorded miracles of grace, healing and love.
If you find yourself in a season of darkness, know that this too shall pass. Also, remember that light from the smallest candle can cast out darkness. Practicing daily gratitudes not only helps you look for, see, and appreciate the good that is already in your life, but can work like these little candles to dispel darkness in these seasons of our lives. Russel M. Nelson eloquently stated “The joy we feel has little to do with our circumstances and everything to do with our focus.”
To this day, I attempt to practice daily gratitude. Also, I no longer associate November with sadness and pain. I have also moved on from the Dollar Store Notebook to a Habit Share App where I record my “Tres Buenas Cosas” and share them with close friends. As we approach Thanksgiving, I challenge you, as well as myself, to practice daily gratitude and share it with trusted friends and family. Not only will this be a form of intimacy and sharing with your loved ones; it can also double as a chance to provide positive feedback or validation to others, which leads to increased goodwill, sharing, appreciation, and intimacy. As a family therapist, I know how powerful it can be to look for the good in our partners and others. As we do this, I promise you will start to see more good. In fact, researchers Fincham and May found that couples who expressed prayers of gratitude experienced greater marital satisfaction. Whether you find yourself in a season of darkness, or light, may your Holiday Season sparkle a little brighter by adding the practice of daily gratitude which will bring additional joy and connection to yourself and your loved ones.
If you would like some more tips on how to write a Gratitude Journal, download our free PDF. You can also check out this cool article on Psychology Today Gratitude Journal: 66 Templates, Ideas, and Apps for Your Diary.
These were the articles consulted for this blog if you want a deeper dive into the literature: