[View original article published in Psych Central here]
There are times when we may feel like we cannot be grateful about anything in our lives. Losing a job or feeling burned out can contribute to one’s negative attitude. Experiencing financial losses or not being able to make ends meet can hurt deeply. Enduring physical or mental health challenges can drive us to feel hopeless. Missing a loved one, seeing one’s child suffer, and relationship difficulties could be additional reasons to feel apathetic.
The list can go on, but research shows that it’s possible to change our perspective despite life’s hardships. We can change our brain chemistry toward feeling more at peace with ourselves and become more grateful. Consider the following points:
“There is a light at the end of the tunnel. Be patient.” This common advice is given when friends and family are struggling. It can be helpful. However, some may say, “I keep looking for that light, but it’s nowhere in sight!” Indeed, life takes us through dark tunnels and sometimes we aren’t sure when we’ll ever see the light. Impatience and despair may result when we choose to focus on waiting. It’s wiser to adjust to the dark and find other alternatives.
Viktor Frankl wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” We can decide to focus on what we can control and what matters. How we react to the dark tunnels is our choice.
Research also indicates that when individuals let go of their negativity and are able to shift their focus, they become resilient. Stress and adversity can be beneficial, but only if we believe it is. Consider these three questions to help you maintain a more positive attitude:
- What is something positive that I can learn about this unpleasant experience?
- How can this situation help me become more resilient?
- What will I learn that will enable me to help others?
Can you accept your reality or are you in denial? Sometimes we create a composite of what life ought to be based on what we think others have. It isn’t fair for us to compare our lives with that of others because we’ll never know every detail about them. It’s not useful and can only take us on a downward spiral.
The more we dwell on what we don’t have, the more frustrated and negative we can become. Sometimes we need to accept a loss — what we don’t have at that moment. This doesn’t mean giving up. It means we need to accept what is and do our best with what we have. We can be ready to take what comes our way.
The all-or-nothing thinking pattern may lead us to believe that if we don’t have what we want, it must mean we can’t attain joy and happiness until we do. Emotional reasoning is another thinking error that creates the belief that something must be true because it feels so. Feeling sad, frustrated and disappointed doesn’t mean life has to be that way. When we focus only on the negative details and keep dwelling on them instead of noticing the positive aspects of our lives, we may be experiencing tunnel vision. This thinking error will also impair our ability to become grateful.
Studies regarding oxytocin tell us that this hormone helps us crave for physical contact with our family and friends. It enhances our empathy and helps us support those we care about. Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist, says that oxytocin also is released when we experience difficulties and stress. She reminds us that oxytocin prompts us to connect with others.
Simply put, physiologically, we are not meant to be alone when we are under stress. Unfortunately, our thinking errors may cloud our mind, and we may choose to isolate ourselves. It doesn’t have to be that way.
Being physically near our loved ones may not be possible right when we need them. Mindfully thinking about them can still be beneficial. Linda Graham, MFT and author of “Bouncing Back: Rewiring Your Brain for Maximum Resilience and Well-Being,” says that when we experience difficult situations, we can take a few seconds to think of several people whom we would like to have near us at that time. We can imagine them being fully present and supportive.
Additionally, you can think of someone who makes you laugh or smile. Remember someone who would appreciate a phone call, a text, or a visit. What would you tell them? What would they say? Think of someone you admire and respect. That person may or may not be alive. An historical figure also could be an option. What would this person’s advice be at this time? Think about it, take it in, and carry on.
You might consider keeping a gratitude journal. This is a well-known, effective tool to increase gratitude. Scheduling your writing before bedtime is helpful. Start with small, positive aspects of your day. Is it a smile from a stranger, barely catching the bus, a phone call, not having to wait in line at the store, a quote you read that inspired you? Notice the good in every situation. What is there now that you didn’t notice before?
Starting with small deeds and circumstances can help you see the big picture. As you continue to decrease your thinking errors and connect with the people that matter, you’ll be able to endure life’s difficulties. As you do, you’ll become more resilient. You’ll be able to appreciate whatever comes your way and be grateful.