Practicing Gratitude In Hard Times

“It’s easy to feel grateful when life is good. But when disaster strikes, not only will a grateful attitude help - it is essential. It has the power to energize, heal, and to bring hope - in other words, gratitude can help us cope with hard times.”

Robert Emmons, ph.d., world’s leading expert on gratitude


Tomorrow is my birthday and, since it falls in the same month as Thanksgiving, I have a tradition of spending time reflecting on what I’m grateful for - which then leads to writing my yearly holiday letter . But this has been a challenging year for me, and I have been struggling with feeling grateful.

Last year in November, I wrote a blog, Embracing Life At 65, where I shared about the 5 day hiking trip in the Sierras that I did in celebration of my 65th birthday, the training I did to get in shape for it, and about keeping my body strong and fit going forward. However, two months later, I came down with the “flu that would not end” and then, when I finally turned the corner on that, I fell and seriously injured my already problematic back and spine. The latter resulted in me ending up in the hospital ER with a hypertensive emergency (due to the pain I was experiencing trying to continue working with my injury), on pain and high blood pressure medications (drugs are something I never do!), taking 5 weeks off work, 9 months of body work, and the financial ramifications of it all.

Given the huge challenges that others around me are experiencing, the world disasters that are happening with more and more frequency, and the political mess our country is in, etc., my situation may not seem all that big. But I assure you that it has felt very BIG to me! And more frequently than I care to admit, I’ve found myself complaining and feeling sorry for myself.

I knew I needed to shift my attitude, so that’s what prompted me to research and write this blog on practicing gratitude in hard times. My hope is that others will find this information helpful as well.

“One way through the hard time was to cling to the goodness in my life that was there too. I needed to practice gratitude and notice all the things that were still working, instead of being consumed by what wasn’t.”

Polly Campbell, Psychology Today

Being thankful during hard times isn’t a natural response, but it should be. Studies back this up - gratitude heals. It staves off depression, it makes us happier, and even healthier.

Experiencing loss, frustration, or trauma certainly can make it difficult not to indulge in negative feelings. To say that gratitude is a helpful strategy doesn’t mean that we should ignore or deny suffering, pain, or our feelings. Life is suffering - and no amount of positive thinking will change that. Being grateful doesn’t mean denying negativity. It means reframing negativity into positive channels for gratitude.

I’m not saying the practice of gratitude will return you instantly to a state of bliss and joy. But when troubles come and you are looking for help to get through, gratitude is a coping strategy and it helps us survive when we aren’t otherwise sure if we can.

“Challenges are generally not something someone wants to go through, let alone appreciate. Yet, they are often the very things that can help define, fine-tune, improve, alter, and sometimes force changes and growth. In time, triumphs really can emerge from tragedies. Don’t forget to acknowledge the challenges, what you are learning, and most importantly, what you are grateful for because of this hardship.”

Kimberley Cohen, Good News Network

Robert Emmons, Ph.D, and the world’s leading expert on gratitude, states that it is easy to feel grateful for the good things, but no one feels grateful when times are bad. He goes on to say that it is vital to make a distinction between feeling grateful and being grateful. We cannot easily will ourselves to feel grateful, but being grateful is a choice. And when disaster strikes being grateful provides a perspective from which we can view our life in its entirety and not be overwhelmed by temporary circumstances. He also says that this perspective is hard to achieve - but totally worth it!

“It is important, in the bad situations even more than in the good ones, to be thankful, because being thankful changes us. Being thankful recalibrates the way in which we look at our lives.”

Kimberley Cohen, Good News Network

Studies show that a person who experiences gratitude is able to cope more effectively with stress, may show increased resilience in the face of trauma, and may recover more quickly from illness and/or experience greater physical health.

So it is during these difficult times that gratitude must become a deliberate practice. We must make a conscious effort. We must keep our eyes open to see more beauty and goodness even on days when it’s hard to see them. We must seek it out and celebrate it. We can start with any little thing that is working and give thanks for it. No matter what our personal situation or the state of the world, it’s possible to dig deep and notice the good. And, as a result, we may find ourselves starting to notice more and more things to be grateful for.

Being grateful also reminds us that there are people supporting us and things that help us through our day. These are the encouragement and cheerleaders that help us through the tough times and it’s important to recognize and honor them. This one is especially relevant for me. So many people contributed to my Go Fund Me campaign that allowed me to take the time off from work and get the healing treatments I needed. And there were the family and friends that always seemed to know exactly when I was struggling the most and called and listened to me cry, asked helpful questions, and offered support and encouragement. Or the friends and clients who would drive me to appointments or bring me food or flowers. And even the doctor I finally ended up with who asked me to “tell her my story” and then asked me “what would YOU like to do about it?”

YUP! I’m definitely feeling a lot more gratitude these days. And, in closing, I’m SO grateful to report that my back is feeling better now than it was even before my accident! How about that?

Happy, Healthy Living!

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JoAnn Newton is a Master Massage Therapist, Certified Diet Counselor & Holistic Nutrition Educator, and Spiritual Counselor who is committed to creating, living, and enjoying health, balance, and freedom on all levels, both personally and professionally, while providing educational and healing services.