Gratitude is powerful. It sounds hard to believe, but it’s true: Even in the darkest times of depression or disappointment, count your blessings. It can make you feel better. In addition, it can boost psychological health, enhance empathy, improve self-esteem, and increase mental strength. The practice can be particularly successful for adolescents. At our residential treatment centers for teens, we see the power of this daily.
Gratitude is Good for You
Researcher Robert Emmons has looked closely at the link between gratitude and well-being. In one study, Emmons and his team divided participants into three groups; one group was asked to journal regularly about negative events. A second group was asked about the things for which they were grateful. And a third group about neutral life events. The gratitude group consistently showed higher well-being measures in comparison with the other two.
“In the face of demoralization, gratitude has the power to energize … Gratitude has the power to bring hope,” Emmons writes. He cites the very first Thanksgiving—a celebration of survival after a winter of death and deprivation—as an example of consciously seeking for light in the darkness.
Resilience and Mental Health
Research by Barbara Fredrickson confirmed this phenomenon: She found that people who cultivated grateful attitudes and other positive emotions in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks showed more resilience against depression. Another study found that Vietnam War veterans with higher levels of gratitude experienced lower rates of post-traumatic stress disorder.
An Attitude of Gratitude
For those recovering from teen mental health or substance use disorders, an “attitude of gratitude” can be a powerful factor in moving forward. “Gratitude can serve as a huge catalyst for maintaining resilience and well-being,” says Chelsea Reeves, Director of Alumni Services at Newport Academy and a certified empowerment coach and alcohol and drug counselor. “When an individual is able to identify areas of their life they are grateful for, this creates a domino effect of hope and courage, giving them motivation to keep doing the difficult work they are doing. We see this profound change in teen mental health treatment all the time.”
For teens, who don’t naturally gravitate to gratitude, bringing this positive emotion to the forefront can be enormously powerful. It is woven into the Newport Academy approach from the moment the clients wake up to when they go sleep at night. That starts with setting positive intentions at the breakfast table each morning. Throughout the day, teens have multiple opportunities to experience gratitude through action, whether it’s collaborating with peers in a music therapy or adventure therapy session; feeling the animal-human connection in an equine therapy session; or appreciating their body’s strength and ability in a yoga class. “When you’ve struggled with body image issues for as long as you can remember, and then you do the different postures in yoga and truly feel grateful for each piece of your body—even the body parts you once criticized—it begins to create a shift in perception,” Reeves says.
Rituals that Heal
Before bed, teens meet to make gratitude lists and talk about what went well that day. “All gratitude is worth celebrating and, eventually, the small stuff like ‘I’m grateful for New Girl because it makes me laugh’ grows into ‘I am grateful to be alive today and to have a second chance,’” Reeves says.
Emmons emphasizes that gratitude is a choice. It’s a muscle we can strengthen through daily practice.
Three Ways to Practice Gratitude
Make a list, every day. “Before I get out of bed every morning, I say five things I’m excited about for my day, and when I go to sleep at night, I say five things I’m grateful for about my day,” says Reeves. “I suffered with depression and anxiety throughout my adolescence, and gratitude has been a huge component in sustaining my recovery. Before I knew it, I found myself expressing gratitude outside of my ‘allotted time slot.’”
Reach out. “Another way to practice gratitude is by building peer support and community,” says Reeves. “When you are around positive, healthy people who you can share your gratitude lists with, and they can encourage and affirm you in this process, it creates a ripple effect.” It goes the other way, too: the more grateful you are, the more connected you feel. In a 2007 study, researchers found that those who practiced gratitude had higher levels of perceived social support, as well as lower levels of stress and depression.
Make someone else happy. “I haven’t once left a volunteer or service opportunity wishing I had been doing something different, or not being able to articulate at least one thing that I am grateful for,” Reeves says. A study led by Martin Seligman, known as the father of positive psychology, found that a one-time act of thoughtful gratitude produced an immediate 10 percent increase in happiness and 35 percent reduction in depressive symptoms.
What can you do today to cultivate an attitude of gratitude?
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 84 (2003) 377–389
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84(2) (2003) 365–376
Journal of Research in Personality 42(2) (2008) 854–871
Behavior Research and Therapy 44(2) (2006) 177–199
American Psychologist 60(5) (2005) 410–421
Image courtesy of Aaron Burden for Unsplash