The attitude of gratitude – yes, yes, we’ve all heard how it’s a good thing. But what if it’s not always easy to feel, especially if you’re in the midst of a depression?

Oh yeah, I can quickly rattle off a list things and people I’m grateful for. You know do the ‘Oprah Winfrey’ thing. Apparently, every night she lists 5 things she’s grateful for in a journal. By the way, if I was Oprah, I’d be grateful too.

What I’m saying is, it can be challenging to really feel and sustain the glow of gratefulness. What does it mean to feel grateful? Feeling being the operative word.

I know the things I’m grateful for. I know I’m fortunate (extremely so in comparison to the vast majority of people on the planet) to have enough food, housing, clothes, warmth, friends, to name a few. But knowing my blessings, is different than feeling blessed.

Real gratitude, what I call ‘affective gratitude’ (affect as in emotion) goes deeper than intellectualizing and moves into a physical experience of gratitude or, more accurately, into appreciation. So how can I get out of my head and into my body to experience appreciation? 

I did what most people do when they don’t know something. I ‘googled’ it. Guess what? There is scientific research on gratitude. Dr. Robert Emmons is the preeminent scientific expert on all things grateful.  Seriously – he’s like a gratitude scientist. That’s got to be an oxymoron. But no, he empirically studies gratitude: its benefits, power, how it’s cultivated. To watch one of his fascinating talks click here

His studies found that keeping a gratitude journal really does work. But for me, sometimes at least, it can fall flat. I wanted more than just the ability to list my blessings and redirect my thoughts. I wanted to learn ways into feeling more grateful.

Then I asked myself what does gratitude mean to me? What does it even feel like for me? Do I know how to recognize it?  

I allowed myself not to know what gratitude means, to have no idea what it even feels like and to go from there. The aim was to explore, not necessarily to find. I gave myself 100% permission to be completely inept at counting my blessings. And off I went.

First a note of hope: When I’m not feeling grateful, it’s like the switch to that cluster of gratitude kind of emotions has been turned off and the power to said switch has been hijacked. But that’s good. Really. Stay with me. Even though I’m not feeling grateful, the switch and the source to experiencing gratitude are still there. It means it’s not being accessed, not that it can’t be.

The following are the steps that help me find the actual experience of appreciation, even if only in small doses. See if they work for you:

1) Close your eyes. You probably already got this but don’t do this while you’re driving. Sit (or stand) somewhere when you have time on your own. It can be in your home, or while waiting for the bus even (I don’t recommend the grocery line, it can be a bit unnerving for the cashier and other shoppers). 

2) Take a deep breath in (and out in case you’re wondering). 

3) Say or visualize the word ‘gratitude’ or ‘appreciation’ in your mind. 

4) Focus on your body – watch, is there tension when you focus on one of those words? That’s ok. 

5) Breathe and relax a little deeper. 

6) Mentally review things, occurrences, people, places that you have experienced in the last 24 hours, the last week or two, or even the course of your life. Ask yourself, what or who do you feel gratitude for? This is the tricky and sneaky part: let your mind review items you ‘think’ you’re grateful for and then as you see the item in detail, see if that translates into inklings of gladness, some small bubble of positive emotions or sensations of comfort in your body. Note where those sensations are, what they are.

Example: My “affective gratitude point” is this canvas my husband recently painted for me. A block of pure orange that now hangs in my office. When I think about it, I feel thankful he painted it for me. I feel a little burble of joy, usually near my navel and spreading out to my ribs and chest, when I see it in my mind’s eye. I feel a goodness about it and my husband.  However, I also feel vulnerable. Vulnerability comes with offering thanks. I recognize I am cared for by him, which underscores my interdependence with him. I feel this fragility with him and with others in my life, if I am courageous enough to go there.  Vulnerability is one reason why feeling gratitude can be scary and a reason why we (okay I) sometimes avoid it. Envy, jealousy, bitterness – way easier.

7) If you can’t seem to put your finger on a sense of appreciation, keep going. Keep exploring. Continue gently reviewing. Notice any resistance in your body, take a breath, then return to nudging out appreciation possibilities.  Start with things that you like, that even might seem trivial – trust me they’re not. Could be as simple as a piece of music you heard. Even in the midst of dark depression, push yourself, just a little, to lean into the places you think you might feel appreciation. When I’m in the thick of a depression, when all things seem forever bleak, it’s the feel of my duvet against my skin that I’m grateful for. One, because I’m spending more time in bed and two, if I give thanks to a comforter, it won’t ask for anything in return. It’s a duvet after all. It’s doing what duvets do best, keeping me warm. 

8) When you do hit upon something that gives you a sense of gratitude, notice what it is like: the emotion, sensations, the changes in your body. Do you relax a bit, or feel a sense of comfort? Do you notice your stream of negative thoughts stop for a split second? Be with that, for as long as you like or as long as you can tolerate.  

9) Take a breath, wiggle your toes (to get your bearings) and open your eyes. And give yourself a pat on the back. You just went into unknown territory – alone.  

I do this little practice either in the morning or as I tuck in to go to sleep, sometimes both and sometimes in the middle of the day. Because, even when it comes to something as ‘spiritual’ as gratitude, I need to make it concrete too. I need to make it a practice. I aim to find 5 things that I FEEL grateful for, not just know I’m grateful for. I started with 1, then 2, now 5 – give or take. Oprah can’t be all bad, right?

Like any other skill, it takes practice and a bit of effort to develop it. So that’s what I’ve been doing. And I’ve discovered, surprise of all surprises, when I focus (for 5 minutes even) on finding the feeling of grateful (‘affective’ gratitude) for one person, or thing or happenstance, my world shifts, just a tiny bit and I feel better, even if momentarily.   

Try it and see what happens. Leave a comment below to let me know. I need to hear other people’s experiences, or non-experiences as the case may be with gratitude. Thank-you! No really. I mean that. Thanks.   

© Victoria Maxwell

Before you go all nuclear on me saying ‘how dare you make fun of people with psychiatric disorders!’, check my two previous posts about my rules for finding the humor in mental illness: rules for finding the humour in mental illness and 13 One-Liners About Being Crazy. Mean-spiritedness, degradation are NOT my M.O.s

The two most important tenets in my rulebook:

    1. If you don’t have mental illness, it ain’t your rodeo to ride in. I live with multiple mental health issues. It’s up to me if I want to joke about them or not. If you have mental illness, you have the same choice.
    2. I don’t make fun of people with mental illness. Yes, I may make fun of myself, but mostly I discover the humor in the situations I find myself in because I have mental illness.

Why bother finding the comedy in pain? The overarching reason: for me, it is healing.  I hope you have some giggles as you read these and as you giggle I hope you heal (just a smidgen).

Ok here goes. Warning: some corny, really corny jokes ahead.

  1. Mental illness runs in my family. Which is sort of weird, because my parents weren’t very athletic.
  2. I’ve never had paranoid delusions. Somebody told me I did, but I know they’re lying.
  3. I’m lucky, I have very little side effects from my medications. They can fit right into my pocket.
  4. In the beginning my eating disorder meant I had dessert before my entrée. But then it got serious and developed into compulsive overeating – as opposed to apathetic overeating.
  5. Hallucinations are when people see things that aren’t there. I totally understand that.  An ex-psychiatrist of mine had them. I know for a fact, she never saw me. I don’t know what she was seeing, but she definitely didn’t see me!
  6. I’m on Zoloft and Epival and many other planets.
  7. I have psychotic breaks – my car stops at all delusions.
  8. I have an anxiety disorder…which means my anxiety orders dis and dat.
  9. I’ve faced mental illness. Stuck my tongue out at it, shook my fist at it and finally gave it the finger.
  10. What does it mean when people say “I don’t believe in drugs for mental illness”?  ‘Cause they seem pretty real to me. I think those people might have a delusional disorder.
  11. It makes perfect sense mental illness runs in my family. I’d run too if I had a family like mine.
  12. Where do they get these names for psychiatric drugs? No wonder we don’t like taking them. They sound like a bad storyline from a Star Trek sequel. You know: Captain Zoloft and his commander in chief Colonel Paxil are involved in negotiations with the Prozac Nation and the Lithium Liberation Army.
  13. I still have psychotic breaks from time to time – which are very different than coffee breaks. You don’t get paid for psychotic breaks.

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© Victoria Maxwell