The Psychology of Gratitude

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This is the season when people talk about feeling grateful. But, I think it’s worth really thinking about how to bring that emotion into focus in our lives and tap its ability to heal us psychologically.

I think there is a very real connection between feeling grateful and feeling a sense of purpose in life. The individual who believes that his or her existence has real meaning has the raw material for gratitude built-in. That conviction allows each day to be seen as the next page in a truly miraculous story. In this context, even adversity can be put into context: We can be grateful for the ability to summon courage or persistence or empathy, despite very trying circumstances.

It is also important to note that gratitude is one of those emotions we don't necessarily feel unless we think about it--sort of like the act of breathing. Until we focus on it, it lacks intention. But gratitude will become palpable if we think of what is not wrong in our lives that could be--that we have a roof over our heads (if we are lucky enough to), that our spouses are healthy (if that is the case), that our children are happy (if that is the case). I have a favorite saying I share with people who give me bad news that doesn't seem to cut me to the core: "You're not a pediatrician." I then explain that, once you've had a child (and I am grateful to have two), that only a pediatrician (with, God-forbid, bad news) could really shatter your existence.

Gratitude also ceases to be invisible if we focus on one, single being or situation we care about and think of the number of specific qualities or acts or memories associated with the thing that make us feel grateful.
My dog Lucy who recently passed away is a good example. I'm grateful she was part of my life. But that's the umbrella category of gratitude. I'm grateful for the deep hues of her brown eyes, for her floppy ears, for the way she turned her head far to the right and looked at me askance when she was angry with me, for the naps we took together, for the kindnesses she showed my children, for the time I got a call letting me know she was down the street at a neighbor's house who was having a barbecue (and that the neighbor wanted permission to have her stay for a while), for the way she used to like the waves at the beach to take her tennis ball and bring it back to her, for the time she misjudged the tides and her ball floated into the ocean, and I waded in--clothed--to my waist to retrieve it for her, because I loved her. I could go on and on. I could share a universe of gratitude with you about that single animal, even that single animal on a single day. Peel back the layers of your existence, freeze time and then thaw it . . . slowly, and gratitude comes to the fore, in waves, if you will.

Gratitude is to be found in every unexamined, immeasurable aspect of being human. Think about the fact that we humans laugh. What is that? We become so joyful that our faces change contour, our breathing changes, our muscles go on autopilot, and we can even cry.
Huh? Is that not truly amazing? How about the fact that we humans experience empathy--literally being able to appreciate the suffering of others, thousands of miles away. Huh? Really? What a wonderful, inexplicable, immeasurable reality. Think about love. Is it not something about which to be grateful that men and women will cross oceans in order to be by one another’s side? Is it not something about which to be grateful that I would, in a heartbeat, without a thought, donate both my kidneys to my children, if each of them needed one? We have gratitude encoded in our DNA as humans, but sometimes we have to unravel our myriad thoughts and focus our attention, in order to feel it.

Gratitude insulates us from pessimism and self-loathing. Far from lulling us into complacency, it is fuel for the fight. At an elemental level, we can always be grateful that the future is not immutable. Ultimately, it is in our hands.

It is no wonder, then, that psychiatric illnesses attack gratitude--major depression can make folks forget that life is a gift; panic disorder can hijack all their thoughts and feelings and leave no bandwidth for hope or gratitude; alcohol and drug addiction can take their autonomy away so that they don't have the personal reserves to look with optimism or gratitude upon anything.

It is important to note that only those who are truly free can be truly grateful. Gratitude has to be felt by an individual with the autonomy and liberty to honestly survey his life and life, in general. The man who has ceded his individuality cannot be genuinely grateful, because his emotions are not his own. He is a man who cannot really appreciate a sunset, because he is not truly present to see it.

We can be grateful not just for this moment, but for the one that just passed, and the one coming up. Gratitude is timeless.

Dr. Keith Ablow is a psychiatrist and member of the Fox News Medical A-Team. He is a New York Times best-selling author, whose book “Living the Truth: Transform Your Life Through the Power of Insight and Honesty” has launched a self-help movement. Dr. Ablow can be reached at