The year 2020 has been awful for most of us, a humbling year we are not likely to forget due to Covid-19. My heart goes out to those who have lost loved ones, family, friends and colleagues. Given the difficulties we have been through, we may have lost sight of the good that has happened to us and the fact that there is always something to be grateful about or someone to be grateful for.
The significance of gratitude has been recognised for centuries and is at the core of most religions and cultures. The importance of gratitude stems from the fact that one has received a benefit as a positive outcome and that this benefit stems from an external source. At times this positive outcome may not even be deserved or earned and may even come from total strangers.
In this way, gratitude becomes a source of human strength as it inspires us to respond to the kindness received not just by repaying the person but also by paying it forward.
As parents demonstrate this value of gratitude to their children by teaching them to be thankful at a young age, it reinforces how small acts of kindness are just as important as big ones. Most times we tend to ignore the good things happening in our lives in favour of trying to fix what is wrong.
A good life is not the absence of negativity, it is appreciating the good while acknowledging the bad.
Benefits of experiencing gratitude
Positive psychology research has given ample evidence as to the power of gratitude. Positive emotions such as gratitude, joy, hope, inspiration and love have been found to enable optimal functioning, not just for the present moment but over time. Specifically, a study by Fredrickson found that through keeping diaries and recording emotions felt during the day, participants found positive meaning and long-term benefits within their best, worst and ordinary experiences each day. Over time, the effects of positive emotions increase and multiply from the attention and awareness of earlier experiences of positive emotion, which facilitates coping with adversity, thereby building resilience and enhanced emotional wellbeing.
- Experiences of gratitude mitigate against negative experiences such as resentment, envy and regret.
- Individuals find positive meaning in the daily ups and downs of life.
- Individuals tend to perform future kind acts not only towards their benefactors, but also towards people uninvolved in the initial interaction.
- Gratitude increases prosocial behaviours.
- Gratitude assists individuals appreciate and value the life they have, their strengths, values, relationships, meaning and purpose, all which contribute to overall life satisfaction.
How do you cultivate it?
Some may be wondering if it is even possible to feel gratitude amidst disappointment given the year we have had. By keeping a gratitude journal or writing a gratitude letter, you can answer this question for yourself and share your experience with others. With a journal, you reflect on both positive and negative experiences you had and write down what you are thankful for in those situations. The letter is written to someone whom you are grateful to and would like to thank for what they have done in your life. Reflect on the following after completing the exercise:
- How did you feel after you identified things you were grateful for? Were there any surprises; things that made you laugh or things you did not expect?
- If you wrote a letter, would you be able to visit your intended benefactor and read the letter to them face to face? Or send it to them?
- For journaling, was it easy or difficult to find things you felt thankful for especially in a negative situation?
- Since keeping the journal, are there things you are doing differently in your life?
- How did you feel doing the exercise and why did you feel that way?
I hope reflecting on the current year reminds us of how much there is to be grateful for and that we are inspired to pay it forward.
Silindokuhle is an Industrial/Organisational Psychologist registered with the HPCSA. She holds a Master’s degree from UKZN and runs an independent practice specialising in psychological assessments, training and wellbeing.