Gratitude

How to Be Grateful When Times Are Tough

How to Be Grateful When Times Are Tough
Image credit: Wes Peck | Flickr

"Being grateful" is common advice that everyone has heard: We all know that focusing on what you have instead of what you don't have, can make you a happier person.

Related: 3 Reasons You Should Adopt an Attitude of Gratitude

But, let's face reality: It's difficult to be grateful when you don't feel that way. If things are not going well, the last thing you want to do is "look on the bright side" or "focus on the positive." You're entitled to feel skeptical about being grateful, right?

Well, not so fast, because science shows that feeling grateful actually does make a radical difference: In his book The Upward Spiral, Alex Korb, a UCLA neuroscientist, says that focusing on what you are grateful for actually releases dopamine and serotonin into your body. 

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that helps control the brain's reward and pleasure centers. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter, as well, and is said to play a major part in mood regulation, anxiety and happiness. When these two chemicals are plentiful, we feel good; when they are low, we just don't feel upbeat, plain and simple.

Korb also writes that the mere act of searching for something to be grateful for can make particular neurons in your brain more efficient, thus making it easier to feel grateful over time.

The difficulty with gratitude 

A valid rebuttal to being tasked with feeling grateful is that it is hard to feel that way about things that come easy to us.

For instance, telling people to be thankful for the roof they have over their heads is hard for them to digest if they've never struggled with money. Or, telling someone to be thankful for the food they're eating may not work if they simply can't relate to someone starving in a distant land.

A related and common piece of advice is to list all the things you are grateful for and review it each day. While this is a step in the right direction, it's difficult for us humans to focus on so many different items at once. It's as if we're multi-tasking with our thoughts and feelings.

So, if you're trying to be thankful for the love of your spouse and the security of your job -- at the same time -- you may have a hard time getting a full sense of gratitude for either advantage.

Looking for ways to feel gratitude that make more sense? Here are ways to reprogram your brain to do just that:

1. Understand that your brain can rewire itself.

Neuropsychologists Rick Hanson, author of Buddha's Brain, and Joe Dispenza, author of You Are the Placebo: Making Your Mind Matter, echo the findings mentioned above. For the sake of brevity, they explain that our memories come from neural connections in our brain. When we focus on a particular thought or feeling related to that memory, those connections become stronger and easier for us to remember.

However, when we stop dwelling on those thoughts, the connections dissipate, making it difficult for us to remember why they bothered us in the first place. 

So, although it may be difficult at first, you should continue focusing on things you are grateful for, because that practice will get easier over time, as those new neural connections become stronger.

You will start noticing that those triggers that used to set you off don't anymore and that you're able to look on the bright or opportunisitic side of things much more easily. 

Related: Express Gratitude for Where You Are Right Now, and Say It Out Loud

2. Make a list.

The key is simplicity. When I am creating a performance program for my clients, I tell them to focus on how their three basic needs -- safety, satisfaction and connection -- are being fulfilled. .

When you are looking for what to be grateful for, focus only on one of these needs and pick only one thing you are grateful from among them. Don't overload your brain. Focusing on one thing at a time enables you to emotionally invest in it fully. Here are some ideas: 

Safety: What gives you comfort and security in your life? Think: health, your home, the city you live in, support of your family and friends, money, the freedom you have, a stable job, etc. 

Satisfaction: What activities are you able to pursue that make you feel good or accomplished? Think: realizing goals, hitting targets at work, engaging in hobbies you enjoy, exercising, reading a good book, driving your car or enjoying the outdoors. 

Connection: What makes you feel closer, loved and intimate or connected to others? Think: spending time with family and friends, meeting new people, volunteering, having a great meeting at work, enhancing a relationship with a colleague, being part of a sports event or a party where people share the same interests. 

If you are having trouble finding something to be grateful for, watch the news and I'm sure you will get some ideas.

3. Focus on 'the why.'

After each item on your list, write why you are grateful for it. This will help you associate an emotional response with it, and let it sink a little more into your brain. What impact does it have on your life? Why does it mean so much to you? 

Gratitude is an emotion. So, to get its benefits, you must actually feel grateful for what you are focusing on. Just thinking about it or saying a list of things out loud won't do much. I've written about this topic before. Take a look at "Why Your Morning Routine Doesn't Work." 

4. Experience more.

Don't worry if you are having trouble feeling grateful for things in your life. You're probably unaccustomed to this way of thinking. You just need to surround yourself with things that will make you appreciate what you have. 

Unfortunately, we feel most grateful for things in life when we recognize how little others have. But if we elevate our gratitude while helping others, then we create a win-win. I suggest volunteering with youth or helping out families in need, so you can see what they are going through and understand how much you truly do have. 

5. Research.

If you are still finding it hard to feel thankful, do some research and learn about the conditions other people are facing in the world. You'll have a different perspective on the issues you are dealing with. One strategy is to find a few videos that hit home and watch them every morning to remember how fortunate you are. This will kick your gratitude into action immediately, with little effort. 

The point is not to exploit the bad things other people are going through and use them for our advantage. It is to understand that the more we appreciate what we have in life, the happier we will be, the happier our kids will be and the better a place this world will be. 

Related: 5 Simple Ways to Express Gratitude Every Day