Ten years ago, after my older sister had died in a car accident, I received a package in the mail from a friend. I was beaten down with grief, feeling hopeless and confused as to how to navigate the sorrow. To my surprise, when I opened the box, I read the title of a book: “One Thousand Gifts” By Ann Voskamp. I wondered, in a season such as this, how could I see anything as “a gift”. To be honest, I felt a spark of frustration at this well intentioned present. The author encouraged readers to despite deadlines, drama, debt, and daily routines; to look for the joy; to embrace every day gifts as marks that we are loved. I began engaging with the words Ann wrote. I journaled every day a list of things I was thankful for. I wrote how I was thankful for the morning sun coming in through the window, or getting to watch a cheesy chick-flick with my roommates. I wrote how I was thankful for the way it felt to get into my warm car after walking in the chilly wind, and how I loved picking out a mug to drink my coffee. I listed an encouraging word a friend gave or a good night of sleep. Each day the list grew with sweet mundane things that brought me joy. It did not take away my current sorrow, however I began to feel again as if life was worth living. There was something that became lighter. I am not saying that we should ignore or run away from our negative experiences, rather, that when we give space for both praise and lament; for joy and sorrow simultaneously; something beautiful happens.
Several years later, I took a trip to Kenya for the summer. I visited orphanages and slums and other communities of people within the Nairobi area. To my astonishment, a people that had so little and had experienced so much trauma, were seemingly more life filled than most people I come across in America. I wondered how women that had been raped, children who had been abandoned, and malnourished families could still be smiling. I came to learn that many in that country were in the habit of noticing and acknowledging goodness.
Neuroscience research on gratitude states that it “enhances dopamine and serotonin, the neurotransmitters responsible for happiness. Gratitude helps to reduce fear and anxiety by regulating stress hormones; and it fosters cognitive restructuring by evoking positive thinking.” Some researchers have even asserted that when practiced daily, gratitude can be similar to antidepressants. Gratitude also…
- Releases toxic emotions. The limbic system which is the part of the brain responsible for all emotional experiences (helping to regulate emotions), gets activated with feelings of gratitude. Studies of individuals that wrote letters of gratitude beside their regular counseling sessions, felt better and recovered more quickly.
- Gratitude reduces pain. By regulating the level of dopamine, gratitude fills us with more vitality, which in turn reduces subjective feelings of pain.
- Gratitude improves sleep quality. Studies have shown that receiving and displaying simple acts of kindness activates the hypothalamus, thereby regulating other bodily mechanisms controlled by the hypothalamus, which includes sleep.
- Gratitude aids in stress regulation. When practicing thankfulness, the stress hormone, cortisol, is reduced.
- Gratitude reduces anxiety and depression. At the neurochemical level, feelings of gratitude are associated with an “increase in the neural modulation of the prefrontal cortex, the brain site responsible for managing negative emotions like guilt, shame, and violence.”
So friends, I encourage you, while giving space to acknowledge what has been lost, for the hard things; give space for that which is good as well. Whether it be a bird chirping by your window, a hot bowl of soup, or a maybe a really pretty flower. Life is really hard, and there is still good.
**The information contained herein is not therapeutic advice nor a substitute for therapy. It should not be used to diagnose or treat any mental health problem. If you are located within the United States and you need emergency assistance please call 911 or go to your nearest emergency room. If you are located within Colorado you may also call the Colorado Crisis Line at 844-493-TALK (8255).