Gratitude During a Pandemic…And Beyond

It is a condition of being human to have needs and navigate ways of getting those needs met. In doing so, we come up against the senses of “not enough” and maybe even “too much,” and we figure out how to live in those spaces or create new ones. It is also a human given to think about the future, to create scenarios in our minds that elicit feelings, anywhere from joy to distress. For those of us that get a kick out of catastrophizing or dreaming, future-rumination can be an all-too-cozy space. Although the twinges of “not enough” and “What if…?” are never far from human awareness, right now they hold a specific collective poignancy.

On a global scale, people have been and are navigating “having enough,” “making enough,” “being enough,” to meet a health crisis. Navigating “enough” can be a distressing experience by itself, but when environmental factors are physically out of control to such a magnitude, the distress is kicked up a notch. The question, then, is how to handle it. What can people do about strong feelings (ie: fear, distress, despair) around finances, resources, livelihoods, and the unknowns surrounding these? One thing is to develop a gratitude practice. 

For a long time, gratitude as a feeling, trait, and practice has held interest across disciplines, including philosophy, sociology, religion, psychology and, more recently, neurobiology. But first, how can we define gratitude? In the behavioral health context, its definition has changed over time to become more inclusive of a breath of experiences. For instance, an earlier, more limited definition in gratitude study is that it is an emotion that results from receiving benefit from another person (Bock, Eastman, & McKay, 2013). Wood et al. (2010) would define gratitude in a broader scope, saying that gratitude “is part of a wider life orientation towards noticing and appreciating the positive in the world” (qtd. in Bock et al., 2013). Bock et al. (2013) also offers that this definition of gratitude lends itself to benefit people across social and personal spheres. 

Shown throughout a body of research to be positively associated with psychological well-being, gratitude supports the behavioral health of individuals through increased emotion-regulation, stress-regulation, and reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression (Sansone & Sansone, 2010; Chowdhury, 2020). Gratitude can also serve as a means to cushion the effects of financial stressors, known to negatively impact psychological well-being and increase psychological distress as well as inflammation in the body (Sturgeon et al., 2016). One 2013 study responding to research on overall health effects of the 2007-2009 Great Recession found that participants who were more grateful in a self-report measure experienced greater optimism about the economy and hope in future prospects (Bock, Eastman, & Mckay, 2013).

Practicing gratitude helps us to live in the present while priming us for a more manageable future.

Rahal (2018) compares gratitude and mindfulness practices in that both create frameworks where people can learn to work effectively with their negative emotions in the present. Neither gratitude nor mindfulness eliminate unpleasant feelings but rather offer a different way to approach the feelings. As mindfulness allows for unbiased awareness of emotions, gratitude does the work of shifting attention away from negative emotions. Researchers in a 2017 UC Berkeley study offer that dwelling on these emotions simply becomes more difficult when attention is shifted elsewhere, for example, to gratitude (Wong & Brown, 2017).

The same 2017 UC Berkeley study examined the effects of gratitude practices in college students struggling with depression and/or anxiety and receiving mental health counseling. Through self-report measure and fMRI brain scanning, the study demonstrated that practicing gratitude can have enduring effects on one’s mental health. For instance, the participants who wrote one weekly letter of gratitude for three weeks reported increases in positive mental health effects twelve weeks after the practice had ended (Wong & Brown, 2017).

When we practice gratitude, it shows up physiologically. 

In UC Berkeley’s study, some participants were assigned a gratitude “pay it forward” task. Benefactors presented participants with money and instructed that they give some of it away to a cause of their choosing when they felt grateful. When the participants’ brains were  scanned through fMRI, people who felt more grateful (gave more money to a cause) demonstrated a sensitivity-increase in the medial prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain that is associated with decision-making and learning (Wong & Brown, 2017). The same activation in the medial prefrontal cortex was evident in those who complete the letter-writing task, even after twelve weeks post-task (Wong & Brown, 2017).

Gratitude has also been shown to have a chemical effect on stress and pain-reduction. In one 1998 study, participants who reported feeling grateful had better cardiac function and reduced levels of the stress hormone cortisol (Chowdhury, 2020). Another study demonstrated that when participants in experiencing physical pain kept gratitude journals, their dopamine levels became more regular, hence the reduction in pain perception (Emmons & Mccullough, 2003).

Gratitude is a state and a practice.

While a few studies evidence that some people naturally have a more grateful disposition than others, this does mean one can only feel grateful naturally. Gratitude is action and practice. When one does the work of expressing gratitude, whether through a note (sent or kept), a kind spoken word, or a mindful awareness, those “feel good” neurotransmitters are released. For this reason, some refer to gratitude as an antidepressant. And like antidepressants in pill form, one must also ‘take’ the daily dose of gratitude. 

Many environmental factors will remain uncertain, and people continue to navigate attitudes around having/doing/making “enough.” And practicing gratitude offers the opportunity for people to cultivate a sense of well-being and potential long-term mental health benefits through simple manageable practices. Now is an especially good time to continue or begin a gratitude practice. Here at TPN.Health, we are grateful for our trusted community of clinicians and providers! 

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References:

Bock, D. E., Eastman, J. K., & Mckay, B. P. (2013). Exploring The Relationship Between Gratitude And Economic Perceptions. Journal of Business & Economics Research (JBER), 11(11), 445. doi:10.19030/jber.v11i11.8192

Chowdhury, M. R. (2020, May 12). The Neuroscience of Gratitude and How It Affects Anxiety & Grief. Retrieved May 21, 2020, from https://positivepsychology.com/neuroscience-of-gratitude/

Emmons, R. A., & Mccullough, M. E. (2003). Counting blessings versus burdens: An experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84(2), 377-389. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.84.2.377

Rahal, L. (2018, July 08). How Gratitude and Mindfulness Go Hand in Hand. Retrieved May 21, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/how-gratitude-and-mindfulness-go-hand-in-hand/

Sansone, R. A., & Sansone, L. A. (2010). Gratitude and well being: the benefits of appreciation. Psychiatry (Edgmont (Pa. : Township)), 7(11), 18–22.

Sturgeon, J. A., Arewasikporn, A., Okun, M. A., Davis, M. C., Ong, A. D., & Zautra, A. J. (2016). The Psychosocial Context of Financial Stress. Psychosomatic Medicine, 78(2), 134-143. doi:10.1097/psy.0000000000000276

Wood, A.M., Froh, J.J. and Geraghty, A.W.A. (2010). Gratitude and well-being: A review and theoretical integration. Clinical Psychology Review. 30, 890-905.

Wong, J., & Brown, J. (2017, June 6). How Gratitude Changes You and Your Brain. Retrieved May 21, 2020, from https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/how_gratitude_changes_you_and_your_brain

Image Credit: https://www.livehappy.com/practice/gratitude-practice

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