Finding Gratitude During Challenging Times

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Although the Oxford English Dictionary has labeled the year 2018 as "toxic" — it might also be remembered as  “traumatic.” Young people are protesting epidemic gun violence. Families seeking asylum in the United States are being caged in makeshift shelters. There are some 14,000 unaccompanied minors living in a Texas internment camp.  Now ICE is moving hundreds of migrants along border cities to bus stations with little or no notice to housing resettlement agencies. As we come to the end of a supposedly cheerful holiday season, for many people finding a smile or gratitude is a challenge.

Nonetheless, we are hopeful for a New Year with more peace and less political stress trickling down into our daily lives. It is difficult to smile and feel grateful when we see so much vindictiveness in politicians.  However, we should not allow this behavior to take away our joy, our gratitude, and our attitude toward others. When we are feeling dragged down by negativity, this is the time when Robert A. Emmons, Ph.D., professor of psychology at University of California at Davis, would be reminding us, as he did during an earlier interview:

"Gratitude is an attitude, not a feeling that can be easily willed." Even if you are not satisfied with your life as it is today, he pointed out, "if you go through grateful motions, the emotion of gratitude should be triggered. It is like improving your posture and as a result becoming more energetic and self-confident."

Dr. Emmons added: "Attitude change often follows behavior change. By living the gratitude that we do not necessarily feel, we can begin to feel the gratitude that we live."

Here are his four simple suggestions that are attitude boosters:

  • Smiling.
  • Saying "thank you."
  • Sending thank-you notes.
  • Making gratitude visits. 

Grateful people are found to be generally happier, with more social connections and fewer bouts of depression, which affects 20.9 million American adults. The National Institute of Mental Health reports that about 9.5 percent of the U.S. population 18 and older has a mood disorder in a given year.

Sometimes we need to force ourselves to express gratitude for ourselves as well as those we love. Additionally, it is helpful if we encourage gratitude in children.

Jeffrey J. Froh, Psy.D., professor of psychology at Hofstra University believes we can teach children the benefits of gratitude. His findings indicate that grateful children do better in school, have fewer headaches and stomach aches, get better test scores and may be more community minded.

He commented: "A lot of these findings are things we learned in kindergarten or things our grandmothers told us, but we now have scientific evidence to prove them."

He said that through their research they have "replaced armchair philosophy and moral and religious rhetoric regarding gratitude with empirical observation of what gratitude is and what it does in people’s lives."

We are living during a time when health care and particularly mental health services are being slashed from budgets. There no longer seems to be a national focus on protecting the vulnerable. Children of gun violence and migrant children may be facing years of need for mental health counseling to help them through traumatic experiences.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness documents depression rates.  And for our veterans, according to US Department of Veteran Affairs it is being reported that:

"About 20 veterans a day across the country take their own lives, and veterans accounted for 14 percent of all adult suicide deaths in the U.S. in 2016, even though only 8 percent of the country’s population has served in the military."

As health crises increase, Congressional budget allocations decrease.  At the state and national level, we can lobby legislators to protect our citizens and those who come here seeking a new homeland.  And, on the personal level — with awareness, compassion, and acts of kindness we can help those who are struggling find a certain peace of mind.

As Massachusetts poet, philosopher, and lecturer Ralph Waldo Emerson has said: “You cannot do a kindness too soon because you never know how soon it will be too late.” 

Copyright 2018 Rita Watson

Focusing on the needs of others, may help you find gratitude and your smile.
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