Published: April 29, 2020

Authored by By Stanley Ly, MA, LPC

Many of us are now over a month into working from home. As the novelty wears off, and a new normalcy takes shape, many of us are growing fatigued by the bombardment of tragic and confusing news stories. People are flocking towards uplifting stories and examples of positivity (and here too).

Why is this? As a licensed counselor for the University of Colorado, not a session has gone by in over a month without mention of the novel coronavirus. Interestingly, even as more accounts of anxiety, fear, depression, and grief have been emerging, I’ve also noticed a rise in discussions about gratitude. It would seem that people are taking stock of what is really important for them.

It may not surprise you to learn that the most commonly cited appreciations include children and family members, close connections, beloved animals, health, and basic physiological security and safety.

I believe we are doing more than simply taking inventory--to do so would be akin to checking our wounds after a cycling accident. Those with the luxury to take inventory and stock up have already done so, both concretely (e.g. stocking up on a month’s worth of basic supplies) and emotionally (e.g. checking in with that college friend you have not spoken to in 3-years).

It is my belief that now that we have stepped into a new, albeit temporary, normalcy, we are simply doing what we have done for eons. Ever since the discovery of fire fortified in humanity an extraordinarily bold access to sustained safety, we look for goodness.

It’s okay to allow yourself some happiness right now.

It is also okay to let yourself feel stress, fear, panic, sadness, boredom, and anger. Your emotions are perfectly valid. There is an incredible amount of global stress right now, ranging from the inconvenience of not being able to eat at your favorite restaurant, to sincerely missing your dear friends, to seeing tragic images of medical professionals mourning the loss of one of their own. Again, your emotions are perfectly valid, and there is no good purpose to even consider trying to pretend your emotions are otherwise.

Take pauses, take deep breaths. We have physiological data that deep breathing and self-compassion is that we’re tapping into our parasympathetic response, which calms us down and helps us feel safe.

Buddhist monk and peace activist, Thich Nhat Hanh, writes, “The seed of suffering in you may be strong, but don’t wait until you have no more suffering before allowing yourself to be happy.” Celebrating life and health right now does not make you insensitive or ignorant. In fact, gratitude helps us navigate scary and unpredictable times with more clarity, and helps us to experience health benefits, greater joy, and stronger connections to others. Gratitude reminds us that although suffering exists as a part of life right now, it is not the entirety of life.

What is gratitude?

Robert Emmons, Ph.D. is perhaps the preeminent scientific expert on the subject of gratitude. In his essay, “Why Gratitude is Good,” Dr. Emmons claims that gratitude is the unity of two key components.

First, Dr. Emmons writes, gratitude is an affirmation of goodness. It is an affirmation that good things and positive gifts and benefits do exist in our world and life. Gratitude does not negate or ignore the fact that suffering, challenges, burdens, and pain exists as well. But gratitude, when we can take a step back and look at the bigger picture, clarifies our perspective and encourages us to identify some amount of goodness in our life.

Dr. Emmons purports that the second component of gratitude is figuring out where that goodness comes from. A good experience becomes gratitude when it comes from outside of yourself. Dr. Emmons argues that while we can appreciate positive traits in ourselves, true gratitude involves a “humble dependence on others: we acknowledge that other people—or even higher powers, if you’re of a spiritual mindset—gave us many gifts, big and small, to help us achieve the goodness in our lives.”

How gratitude works.

Many neurochemical functions seem to activate when the brain experiences gratitude. The brain’s production of dopamine and serotonin, generally thought of as the neurotransmitters responsible for happiness, increases; stress hormones regulate to reduce fear and anxiety; and cognitive restructuring occurs by encouraging positive thinking.

The Mindfulness Awareness Research Center of UCLA states that gratitude changes the neural structures in the brain, and makes us feel happier and more content. By activating the reward center of the brain, gratitude exchange (e.g. feeling grateful and appreciating others when they do something good for us) alters the way we see the world and ourselves, and regulates effective functioning of the immune system.

I often explain to my clients that gratitude is transformative by nature: acknowledging goodness around us with humility forces us to exist in the present moment and pay attention to what we have. Gratitude acts as a catalyst that prompts us to, in essence, count your blessings.

How to deepen your experience of gratitude.

We teach our children to say “thank you” when they receive something, and while that is an important skill to communicate feedback, it’s only one aspect of how gratitude works.

Researchers have identified four parts that make up the gratitude experience, and questions we can ask to deepen our experience of gratitude:

  • What we NOTICE in our lives for which we can be grateful
    • What have you been given today or what do you already have in your life that you are grateful for?
  • How we THINK about why we have been given those things
    • Why do you think you received this gift or goodness in life? Do you think this was something that was owed to you?
  • How we FEEL about the things we have been given
    • What does it feel like inside?
  • What we DO to express appreciation in turn
    • Is there a way you want to show appreciation? Does it make you feel like sharing your appreciation to someone else?

Try this with a gratitude journal you write in once a day. Or try writing letters of gratitude, maybe once a month (or once a week if you are feeling generous). Cultivating gratitude over time takes just that: time. We are prepared to spend a decade earning a degree, years of hard work to receive a promotion, a lifetime of lessons from mistakes to improve our relationships. Is the happiness received from living a life with gratitude not a worthwhile enough endeavor to dedicate time?

The greatest of virtues.

The bell is calling.
Our feet kiss the Earth.
Our eyes embrace the Sky.
We walk in mindfulness.
10,000 lives can be seen in a single instant.
This is still Springtime,
when everything is manifesting itself so rapidly.
The snow is green.
And the sunshine is falling like the rain.

Thich Nhat Hanh

Roman philosopher Cicero is sourced with once saying, “Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others.” What I believe he meant by this is that all other virtues that we aspire towards--happiness, hope, justice, respect, beauty, safety, etc--are made paler, hollowed, and less inspired without gratitude. That is because gratitude, the affirmation that indiscriminate goodness exists everywhere, is a state of being, a state of thankfulness. It helps us remember to not take anything for granted and to be inspired.

We all need to feel inspired. I hope that you let yourself be amazed today.

About the Author

Stanley Ly is a Licensed Professional Counselor in the Faculty and Staff Assistance Program at University of Colorado Boulder. In 2014, he provided psychological first aid to individuals affected by the floods in Boulder County in 2013. Since 2007, he has worked with sexual assault crisis hotlines, hospitals, and jails providing counseling and psychological support for individuals experiencing psychiatric crises.