Nov. 3, 2020
Taking care of our mental health during a pandemic isn’t easy. Since the outbreak began, we’ve all been feeling — understandably — a lot more stressed. One study found that 57% of people are experiencing greater anxiety, and 53% of us are more emotionally exhausted. These kinds of emotions tend to arise when we lose some form of stability in our lives. Right now, we just don’t know what comes next. Living in a constant state of uncertainty can feel like running a race with no finish line or completing a puzzle without a reference picture. Everything seems unclear, and the worst seems possible.
Of course, this not a fun state of mind to be in. So what can we possibly do to help minimize the impacts of uncertainty on our wellbeing? While it may not address the root cause, research shows that gratitude can help balance us out.
“Gratitude is an emotion that grounds us and is a great way to balance out the negative mindset that uncertainty engenders,” said Dr. Guy Winch, author of the book Emotional First Aid. When we express gratitude, our brain releases dopamine and serotonin — two hormones that make us feel lighter and happier inside. If we want to take care of our minds during this pandemic, understanding how to trigger this feeling is an important tool to have at our disposal.
Before you can trigger it, let’s understand why gratitude is so important. We experience gratitude when we shift our focus from what we don’t have to what we do, and when we take time to appreciate and be thankful for those who have contributed to the abundance in our lives. Nearly a decade of research by Dr. Robert Emmons — the world’s leading scientific expert on gratitude — and others has found that people who have regular gratitude practices are healthier, happier, and have better relationships. Further research suggests that gratitude is also key in helping individuals and teams persevere in challenging tasks.
Think of your mind like your digestive system — what you put in it impacts how you feel. When you flood your mind with a constant flow of worry, envy, resentment, and self-criticism (compounded by a barrage of news and other media) it negatively impacts your mental wellbeing. A gratitude practice is like a workout and a healthy eating plan for your mind.
In his article Why Gratitude is Good, Dr. Emmons shares, “You can’t feel envious and grateful at the same time. They’re incompatible feelings, because if you’re grateful, you can’t resent someone for owning things you don’t.” He goes on to share that his research found that people with high levels of gratitude have low levels of resentment and envy. When we take time to focus on what we are grateful for, we choose positive emotions over negative, thus we take steps to nurture our mental health and wellbeing.
How do we trigger gratitude in ourselves? It’s simple. We take time to shift our focus.
HOW TO TRIGGER GRATITUDE IN OURSELVES
Have you ever noticed that when you are looking to buy a new phone or a jacket all of a sudden everyone around you has it? That’s because, consciously or unconsciously, whatever we are focused on is what we see. If we want to trigger gratitude in ourselves, we need to intentionally shift our focus to that which we are grateful for. The simplest way to do this is through questions and prompts and a few daily rituals.
PAUSE AND REFLECT
When you find yourself stuck in a constant state of worry, or hyper-focused on what is not working around you, try to pause for a second and ask yourself one or two of the following questions.
- What have I gotten to learn recently that has helped me grow?
- What opportunities do I currently have that I am grateful for?
- What physical abilities do I have but take for granted?
- What did I see today or over the last month that was beautiful?
- Who at work am I happy to see each day and why?
- Who is a person that I don’t speak to often, but, if I lost them tomorrow, it would be devastating? (Take this as a cue to reach out today!)
- What am I better at today than I was a year ago?
- What material object do I use every day that I am thankful for having?
- What has someone done for me recently that I am grateful for?
- What are the three things I am grateful for right now?
By taking time to write down our answers, we consciously redirect our attention to that which we are grateful for. It’s also a great way to look back and realize what we may have thought of as insignificant was actually the things that brought us joy.
WRITE A GRATITUDE JOURNAL
One common practice is to keep a daily gratitude journal. Jae Ellard, the founder of mindful-based consulting company Simple Intentions, recommends book-ending your day with thoughts of gratitude. She recommends carving out a few minutes at the beginning of the day and end of the day for reflection. Maybe it is the fresh pomegranate you had with your yogurt or gratitude for the health of one’s families. Dr. Winch suggests starting the practice of “writing one paragraph every day about one thing for which we’re truly grateful and why that thing is meaningful to us.” He says, “This introduces positive thoughts and feelings into an emotional climate that is tipped too much toward the negative.” We can also focus our gratitude exercise toward the meaningful things in our lives of which we are certain, such as our friendships, passions, or family, thereby reminding ourselves that while uncertainty exists in some aspects of our lives, certainty still prevails in many others.
BUILD IT IN LIKE A ROUTINE
Since the start of the pandemic, my wife, our four-year-old daughter, and I start every meal by going around the table and sharing one thing we are grateful for. It may be our health, the food on our table, or getting to play with Legos for an hour earlier that day. Although my daughter resisted the practice at first, she is the first one to remind us if we now eat a bite without sharing our thoughts.
I recently came across someone who has taken on the practice of sharing one picture a day on LinkedIn of something he is grateful for and tells his audience the reason behind it. His daily practice not only helps him focus on the positive but inspires others to do the same.
Another way to create a ritual around gratitude is to start or end each virtual meeting or co-study session with a grateful minute. Pick any one or two questions outlined above and invite a few team members or friends to share their answers.
If we want to be able to keep running in this race with no clear finish line, we need to learn to take better care of the runner. Although there is no one solution, learning to trigger gratitude may help us cope along the way.
Christopher Littlefield is an International/TEDx Speaker, specializing in Employee Appreciation and the founder of Beyond Thank You. He has trained thousands of leaders across six continents to create cultures where people feel valued every day. He is the author 75+ Team Building Activities for Remote Teams – Simple Ways to Build Trust, Strengthen Communication, and Laugh Together from Afar. You can follow his work through his weekly mailing The Nudge.
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