A decade’s worth of research on gratitude has shown me that when life is going well, gratitude allows us to celebrate and magnify the goodness. But what about when life goes badly? In the midst of the economic maelstrom that has gripped our country, I have often been asked if people can—or even should—feel grateful under such dire circumstances.
My response is that not only will a grateful attitude help—it is essential. In fact, it is precisely under crisis conditions when we have the most to gain by a grateful perspective on life. In the face of demoralization, gratitude has the power to energize. In the face of brokenness, gratitude has the power to heal. In the face of despair, gratitude has the power to bring hope. In other words, gratitude can help us cope with hard times.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not suggesting that gratitude will come easily or naturally in a crisis. It’s easy to feel grateful for the good things. No one “feels” grateful that he or she has lost a job or a home or good health or has taken a devastating hit on his or her retirement portfolio.
But it is vital to make a distinction between feeling grateful and being grateful. We don’t have total control over our emotions. We cannot easily will ourselves to feel grateful, less depressed, or happy. Feelings follow from the way we look at the world, thoughts we have about the way things are, the way things should be, and the distance between these two points.
But being grateful is a choice, a prevailing attitude that endures and is relatively immune to the gains and losses that flow in and out of our lives. When disaster strikes, gratitude provides a perspective from which we can view life in its entirety and not be overwhelmed by temporary circumstances. Yes, this perspective is hard to achieve—but my research says it is worth the effort.
Remember the bad
Trials and suffering can actually refine and deepen gratefulness if we allow them to show us not to take things for granted. Our national holiday of gratitude, Thanksgiving, was born and grew out of hard times. The first Thanksgiving took place after nearly half the pilgrims died from a rough winter and year. It became a national holiday in 1863 in the middle of the Civil War and was moved to its current date in the 1930s following the Depression.
Why? Well, when times are good, people take prosperity for granted and begin to believe that they are invulnerable. In times of uncertainty, though, people realize how powerless they are to control their own destiny. If you begin to see that everything you have, everything you have counted on, may be taken away, it becomes much harder to take it for granted.
So crisis can make us more grateful—but research says gratitude also helps us cope with crisis. Consciously cultivating an attitude of gratitude builds up a sort of psychological immune system that can cushion us when we fall. There is scientific evidence that grateful people are more resilient to stress, whether minor everyday hassles or major personal upheavals. The contrast between suffering and redemption serves as the basis for one of my tips for practicing gratitude: remember the bad.
It works this way: Think of the worst times in your life, your sorrows, your losses, your sadness—and then remember that here you are, able to remember them, that you made it through the worst times of your life, you got through the trauma, you got through the trial, you endured the temptation, you survived the bad relationship, you’re making your way out of the dark. Remember the bad things, then look to see where you are now.
This process of remembering how difficult life used to be and how far we have come sets up an explicit contrast that is fertile ground for gratefulness. Our minds think in terms of counterfactuals—mental comparisons we make between the way things are and how things might have been different. Contrasting the present with negative times in the past can make us feel happier (or at least less unhappy) and enhance our overall sense of well-being. This opens the door to coping gratefully.
Try this little exercise. First, think about one of the unhappiest events you have experienced. How often do you find yourself thinking about this event today? Does the contrast with the present make you feel grateful and pleased? Do you realize your current life situation is not as bad as it could be? Try to realize and appreciate just how much better your life is now. The point is not to ignore or forget the past but to develop a fruitful frame of reference in the present from which to view experiences and events.
There’s another way to foster gratitude: confront your own mortality. In a recent study, researchers asked participants to imagine a scenario where they are trapped in a burning high rise, overcome by smoke, and killed. This resulted in a substantial increase in gratitude levels, as researchers discovered when they compared this group to two control conditions who were not compelled to imagine their own deaths.
In these ways, remembering the bad can help us to appreciate the good. As the German theologian and Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said, “Gratitude changes the pangs of memory into a tranquil joy.” We know that gratitude enhances happiness, but why? Gratitude maximizes happiness in multiple ways, and one reason is that it helps us reframe memories of unpleasant events in a way that decreases their unpleasant emotional impact. This implies that grateful coping entails looking for positive consequences of negative events. For example, grateful coping might involve seeing how a stressful event has shaped who we are today and has prompted us to reevaluate what is really important in life.
To say that gratitude is a helpful strategy to handle hurt feelings does not mean that we should try to ignore or deny suffering and pain.
The field of positive psychology has at times been criticized for failing to acknowledge the value of negative emotions. Barbara Held of Bowdoin College in Maine, for example, contends that positive psychology has been too negative about negativity and too positive about positivity. To deny that life has its share of disappointments, frustrations, losses, hurts, setbacks, and sadness would be unrealistic and untenable. Life is suffering. No amount of positive thinking exercises will change this truth.
So telling people simply to buck up, count their blessings, and remember how much they still have to be grateful for can certainly do much harm. Processing a life experience through a grateful lens does not mean denying negativity. It is not a form of superficial happiology. Instead, it means realizing the power you have to transform an obstacle into an opportunity. It means reframing a loss into a potential gain, recasting negativity into positive channels for gratitude.
A growing body of research has examined how grateful recasting works. In a study conducted at Eastern Washington University, participants were randomly assigned to one of three writing groups that would recall and report on an unpleasant open memory—a loss, a betrayal, victimization, or some other personally upsetting experience. The first group wrote for 20 minutes on issues that were irrelevant to their open memory. The second wrote about their experience pertaining to their open memory.
Researchers asked the third group to focus on the positive aspects of a difficult experience—and discover what about it might now make them feel grateful. Results showed that they demonstrated more closure and less unpleasant emotional impact than participants who just wrote about the experience without being prompted to see ways it might be redeemed with gratitude. Participants were never told not to think about the negative aspects of the experience or to deny or ignore the pain. Moreover, participants who found reasons to be grateful demonstrated fewer intrusive memories, such as wondering why it happened, whether it could have been prevented, or if they believed they caused it to happen. Thinking gratefully, this study showed, can help heal troubling memories and in a sense redeem them—a result echoed in many other studies.
Some years ago, I asked people with debilitating physical illnesses to compose a narrative concerning a time when they felt a deep sense of gratitude to someone or for something. I asked them to let themselves re-create that experience in their minds so that they could feel the emotions as if they had transported themselves back in time to the event itself. I also had them reflect on what they felt in that situation and how they expressed those feelings. In the face of progressive diseases, people often find life extremely challenging, painful, and frustrating. I wondered whether it would even be possible for them to find anything to be grateful about. For many of them, life revolved around visits to the pain clinic and pharmacy. I would not have been at all surprised if resentment overshadowed gratefulness.
As it turned out, most respondents had trouble settling on a specific instance—they simply had so much in their lives that they were grateful for. I was struck by the profound depth of feeling that they conveyed in their essays, and by the apparent life-transforming power of gratitude in many of their lives.
It was evident from reading these narrative accounts that (1) gratitude can be an overwhelmingly intense feeling, (2) gratitude for gifts that others easily overlook most can be the most powerful and frequent form of thankfulness, and (3) gratitude can be chosen in spite of one’s situation or circumstances. I was also struck by the redemptive twist that occurred in nearly half of these narratives: out of something bad (suffering, adversity, affliction) came something good (new life or new opportunities) for which the person felt profoundly grateful.
If you are troubled by an open memory or a past unpleasant experience, you might consider trying to reframe how you think about it using the language of thankfulness. The unpleasant experiences in our lives don’t have to be of the traumatic variety in order for us to gratefully benefit from them. Whether it is a large or small event, here are some additional questions to ask yourself:
- What lessons did the experience teach me?
- Can I find ways to be thankful for what happened to me now even though I was not at the time it happened?
- What ability did the experience draw out of me that surprised me?
- How am I now more the person I want to be because of it? Have my negative feelings about the experience limited or prevented my ability to feel gratitude in the time since it occurred?
- Has the experience removed a personal obstacle that previously prevented me from feeling grateful?
Remember, your goal is not to relive the experience but rather to get a new perspective on it. Simply rehearsing an upsetting event makes us feel worse about it. That is why catharsis has rarely been effective. Emotional venting without accompanying insight does not produce change. No amount of writing about the event will help unless you are able to take a fresh, redemptive perspective on it. This is an advantage that grateful people have—and it is a skill that anyone can learn.
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A year and a half ago, when I moved from New York City, where I grew up, to Hollywood, Florida, a small coastal city of about a hundred and fifty thousand in Broward County, thirty minutes north of Miami, I’d never before experienced a hurricane firsthand. There was Matthew, that October, but it largely missed Florida, and ended up affecting Haiti instead. Irma has been my first true hurricane—my baptism as a Floridian.
By the first of the month, I’d began hearing rumbles of the storm in the news and online. Neighbors in the building where my fiancée and I live, a compact five-story structure full of concrete lofts, began to talk about it in the elevator or while getting into cars in the parking lot. Instead of a normal nod or hello, they asked, simply, “You staying?” My mother was planning a trip to visit on the 9th of September, and she asked me the same thing. Like a seasoned Floridian, I told her confidently, “It will turn.”
But, by September 3rd, the models made it clear that it would not turn, and we stocked up on canned food, water, and gas. In the following days, people were scrambling: supermarkets were full to capacity, and snarling lines of cars waited for gas at stations. Irma had become a Category 5 storm, with sustained winds of a hundred and seventy-five miles per hour. It was headed toward Puerto Rico, and I was scared for my family in Loíza, a small coastal town of thirty thousand where many cousins and aunts and uncles live, and where two-thirds of residents are below the poverty line. There were reports that Puerto Rico could lose power for months. I monitored the storm closely as it ripped through the Caribbean and the U.S. Virgin Islands. On the news, we saw aerial shots of Barbuda in a heap of rubble, and the Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda described the island as “barely habitable.” In the end, my family in Puerto Rico was largely spared.
Last week, millions of people fled South Florida on the roads, driving as far north as Atlanta and Virginia, and others got flights out to New York and New Jersey. In total, close to seven million residents evacuated. Roadways were clogged, and we heard stories of people running out of gas on the highways, abandoning cars. In the airports, there was a mad rush to get on any flight by Thursday the 7th. We were at the Hollywood-Fort Lauderdale airport, my fiancée trying desperately to get her eighty-year-old grandmothers on a flight to New York. Once they were in the air, we thought about evacuating ourselves, but the models were all over the place, and we weren’t sure where Irma would turn next. We had heard stories of people going north to Tampa to seek refuge, only to have to relocate when it became clear that they might get hit, too. Also, evacuating is costly—last-minute hotels in the Atlanta area were well over a hundred and eighty dollars a night.
We decided to stay, reasoning that our building was constructed within the past decade, under the strict codes that were set in place after Hurricane Andrew, and thus would likely be able to weather the storm. We were promised that the windows in our loft were impact-resistant, capable of withstanding winds of up to a hundred and seventy-five miles per hour, but still we inflated an air mattress and pushed it against the front door, rather than sleep in our bed, which is flanked by two large windows. We packed two book bags with provisions, in case we needed to make a sudden run for a nearby stairwell.
On Friday, we took our last pre-storm stroll around downtown Hollywood, which is famous for its diverse strip of bars and restaurants. We walked north toward a Target, in search of an AM-FM radio, but found only shuttered businesses and desolate streets. Back at our complex, there was a problem with the emergency-exit door, and neighbors gathered to construct a makeshift handle out of some bungee cord. Later, some of us went over to a neighbor’s apartment to drink and eat some hogfish he had recently caught with a spear gun. Before that night, we had never spoken much to each other.
The next morning, September 9th, we awoke to howling winds. A 4 P.M.curfew had been issued for residents of Broward County. The models showed that the storm was turning toward the Gulf Coast, and, while I still had power, I called my aunt and grandmother in Tampa to try to convince them to evacuate to a shelter. My grandmother, a hairdresser who has weathered multiple hurricanes in Florida and Puerto Rico, was working on a client and refused to leave. By nightfall, the skies were a deep blue-black. We watched the news and fielded calls and texts from concerned family and friends. We joked that, to those outside of the state, the news always made the storm seem worse than it was. But soon we were seeing pictures on social media of trees crushing cars and flooding in downtown Miami and Brickell. We received our first tornado warning around 8 P.M. We put on our shoes and sat near the door, keeping our eyes glued to John Morales, the chief meteorologist for our local NBC affiliate, as he called out tornado warnings like a quarterback shouting audibles. There were ten in total throughout the night. At 9 P.M., the cable went out. The sky outside was punctuated by lightning and bursts of green light, as a result of nearby transformers exploding. Thick water sprayed the windows as if we were trapped in a big car wash. One of our windows began to leak through the framing and onto our carpet. The next morning, we lost power as we tried to make breakfast.
When you ride out a storm, there is a lot of downtime as the winds and rain pound outside. We tried to conserve our phone batteries, since we didn’t know when we’d have power again. I read. My fiancée painted. Eventually, we roamed the dark hallways of our building with a flashlight, the halls pitch-black except for the flashing of the emergency-exit light. We found a neighbor in the stairwell smoking a cigarette and reading a Faulkner novel by lantern light. We talked about how insignificant a hurricane can make you feel. How, despite all our technological advancements, we could still be wiped out by a single lashing from Mother Nature. How there was a humbling feeling that came with that knowledge. By Sunday evening, we rounded up more neighbors, whom we now considered friends, for a game of Cards Against Humanity. We spread our flashlights around our table and shared what alcohol and snacks we had.
On the morning of September 11th, the sun came back. The apartment became unbearably hot, and the carpet had a moldy smell. We went for a walk to survey the damage in the area. There were several downed trees that covered whole streets and sidewalks, but already crews of people were hacking at them with saws. Florida Power & Light trucks were driving around to repair outages. Store awnings were torn up and light poles were knocked over. A few roofs had caved in, and at a nearby gas station one of the pumps was turned on its side, ripped from the ground. We passed people on the street who screamed, “We made it!,” and smiled.
That, thankfully, seems to be how most of the state of Florida is feeling. Many streets were flooded, from the Keys to Jacksonville; roads were cluttered with debris and close to nine million residents were left without power. But among Floridians there is, over all, a strong sense of gratitude that we escaped the fate of the Caribbean islands, where Irma struck much more ferociously and claimed at least thirty lives. In Texas, Harvey dropped considerably more rain than Irma, resulting in at least seventy deaths and leaving thirty thousand people displaced. In Florida, there are days and, in some cases, weeks ahead with no air-conditioning or electrical appliances or gas to power the stove. We will make our meals over grills or eat canned food; we will miss days of work, and some residents who live in the harder-hit Keys will have to rebuild homes. Those who evacuated will make long, cumbersome journeys back. But we will do all this knowing that, this time at least, we were the lucky ones.