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How to Cultivate Gratitude Even
In Dark Times

Practicing gratitude can help us overcome the negativity bias, appreciate everyday moments of beauty and goodness, and help support us and build resilience.

We are living through incredibly stressful and challenging times. Unfortunately for us, even at the best of times, our minds have a negativity bias—we are hardwired to focus more on what is negative and so often miss the positive aspects of our lives. At a time when many of us are feeling anxious and isolated, practicing gratitude can help us to be more balanced in body and mind by countering difficult emotions. Practicing gratitude can widen our perceptual field and help us see the big picture and the opportunities in it.  It can bring us outside of our own preoccupations and connect us more fully with the world around us in positive ways.

“The definition of gratitude is really an appreciation for what is good in our lives and what we receive, whether that thing we receive is something tangible or intangible,” says Aleeze Moss, PhD, Associate Director of the Myrna Brind Center for Mindfulness at the Marcus Institute of Integrative Health- Jefferson Health. This could be gratitude for a person in your life, a pet, or simple pleasures that so often we take for granted, says Dr. Moss. The key is not only to notice something that sparks wonder or joy but also to give yourself time to feel that appreciation.

In order to experience these moments of gratitude, Dr. Moss explains that having a mindfulness practice can be very helpful. “With mindfulness, we pay attention to the present moment which includes moments of beauty and goodness even in the midst of stress and challenges,” says Dr. Moss. “Participants in the mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) program often report that they are more aware of the pleasant events and goodness in their lives and that gratitude naturally arises.”

Here, Dr. Moss shares a five-minute gratitude meditation:

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Rachelle Rene, PhD, Director of Primary Care Integrated Behavioral Health at Jefferson, agrees that in order to train your brain from its negativity bias, it’s important to focus on being intentional with your awareness and simplicity.

“Be specific in what you are really grateful for and use all of your senses to really take in a moment,” she says. This awareness practice requires you to be really intentional with your attention and ground yourself in the present to really experience the world around you. “That can be difficult sometimes but you can challenge yourself to seek beauty and find gratitude in even the smallest things,” Dr. Rene says.

Dr. Moss suggests intentionally cultivating gratitude through some simple practices. “You can try setting aside a short period of time each day to simply reflect on what you are thankful for or keeping a gratitude journal and writing two or three things each day for which you are grateful,” she offers. “It could be expressing your gratitude directly to another person. All of these can nourish us and support our wellbeing.”

Dr. Rene practices journaling as part of her own self-care. “There is something in simply writing,” she explains. “You don’t have to write forever, but getting thoughts out of your head and onto paper provides its own sense of emoting.” She adds that you don’t need a journal necessarily. You can use your computer or even open your notes app on your phone to give yourself a space to pause and reflect on a moment you are grateful for.

Here Dr. Rene offers journaling prompts to jump-start your own journaling practice:

  • Today I’m grateful that I slowed down long enough to…
  • Today I’m grateful that I have been given…
  • Today I’m grateful that I can hear…
  • Today I’m grateful for the opportunity to…
  • Today I’m grateful that I noticed…

However, it might feel hard to find these moments to be thankful for or even have the awareness to notice the good in our lives when we feel so weighed down by what is happening in the world right now.

“The pandemic has rocked all of us, coupled with the social and racial unrest, the levels of stress we are facing could feel absolutely debilitating,” says Dr. Rene. “No one is going to be readily receptive to being told, ‘oh just be positive,’ right now. However, tapping gratitude is a tool to really build our own sense of resiliency.”

Cultivating gratitude is about retraining your brain and what lens you choose to see your world. Dr. Rene explains this requires you to be really intentional with your attention and ground yourself in the present to really experience the world around you—a practice that could lead to moments of wonder in unexpected places.

Dr. Rachelle Rene at Longwood Gardens

Dr. Rachelle Rene at Longwood Gardens.

“It was a rare day off for me since the beginning of the pandemic and I was just walking through the grounds of Longwood Gardens and taking in the beauty that I was seeing when I looked down and I was filled with awe. As I’m going up a small set of steps and there was this small leaf on the ground,” she recalls, “and it stopped me in my tracks because it was in the shape of a heart.

It reminded me how even in the midst of this craziness that’s our world right now, our hearts can still be open to a sense of beauty,” Dr. Rene says. “I thought about how throughout all of this, our hearts continue to beat as we just keep going through these challenging times.” Even in the midst of all of the chaos the pandemic and social and racial unrest has brought on, we still long for beauty, love and connection. I think that’s a fundamental part of gratitude, the practice of which centers us back to what’s really important, what we are grateful for.

Heart-shaped leaf

Note: Even as we talk about gratitude it’s important to recognize the signs of when you should seek the help of a licensed mental health professional during these times, says Dr. Rene. Some key indicators include feelings like you’re not able to function in a way that allows you to be productive in your work or connected in your relationships as you used to; excessive feelings of fear, worry, anxiety, or sadness; not feeling your usual self. If you’re feeling you aren’t able to control your emotions or concentrate, reaching out to a Licensed Behavioral Health Provider can help you find equilibrium again.

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COVID-19, Healthy You