Why gratitude is so vital for mental health wellbeing

Gratitude and mental health - Tikvah Lake Recovery

Whether it’s positive or negative, anything we focus on gets bigger. So how you think will be how you feel.

Our ancestors were all too aware of this. “The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts,” said Roman Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius. 

Then in Proverbs, it says: “For as he thinketh in his heart, so is he.” Or much more recently, self-help motivator and bestselling author Dr. Wayne Dyer said: “You’ll see it when you believe it.”

How many thoughts do we have a day?

Daily thoughts - Tikvah Lake Recovery

Our thoughts are hugely powerful. They are the internal words that only we can hear no matter how loud we shout or scream them. 

Think how someone who is scared of flying can actually think about flying and make themselves physically sick. Or someone with arachnophobia can become frozen to the spot and have cold shivers coursing through at the mere thought of a spider.

So we need to choose our thoughts wisely. According to research by the University of Southern California’s Laboratory Of Neuroimaging, the average adult has 70,000 thoughts a day.

What most people are unaware of is that we actually have a choice over which of these thoughts we pay attention to as they relentlessly roll into our heads. We can remember that we are not the thoughts, but that we are who observes those thoughts.

Power of thought: wrong or right?

Power of thought - Tikvah Lake Recovery

But there is a key problem for a great number of people. It’s perhaps especially common for people who are struggling with mental health problems.

This is because the household they grew up in overwhelmingly focused on negative aspects of life. This means that as a child they were “taught” to pay most attention to negative thoughts.

So because anything that we focus on grows bigger, so negative aspects of life grow. If we think negatively and allow that in, to become a “reality” inside us, we will experience negative emotional feelings as well as often feeling physically under par.

In a family like this, the first question to any suggestion or idea is always something such as: “But what can go wrong with that?” It is living through fear.

However, this can be completely turned around so that people live instead with hope and optimism, focusing on positive aspects of life. Then the first question becomes something more like: “So let’s think about all that can go right with that?”

It’s as motor manufacturer Henry Ford said: “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t – you’re right.”

We understand this in sports psychology. If every player in a baseball team kept thinking about a match that they were going to lose it, they would be very unlikely to win it. As we think in our heart, so we will be…

What is a gratitude list?

Gratitude list - Tikvah Lake Recovery

One simple but extremely effective way of learning to focus on positive aspects of life is to write a daily gratitude list. Especially at first – particularly if someone’s suffering from a mental health disorder – this might be a case of “fake it to make it”. 

But it’s important to note that so many of us take for granted aspects of life that we should be grateful for – in fact, that includes life itself. But also such as having our health, hot and cold running water, a home, family, friends, pets, food in the fridge, nature, and even smaller things too such as a pen to write with, a cup to drink from, a cell phone, a pair of shoes…

So write these things down on a list every day. Think of some others too, perhaps from the day.

That could be that you think of a friendly interaction you had with a work colleague, that you ate a delicious meal, that you started reading a great book. Think of ten positive things for which you are grateful and write them down.

What’s the best way to start every day?

Starting a new day every day - Tikvah Lake Recovery

One way of doing a gratitude list that has proven to work well for many people for many years now is to write down these ten things just as you get into bed. Start each sentence with the words “I am grateful for… ” and keep the sentences brief.

Then as soon as you wake up read through the list. It’s a wonderfully positive way to start the day.

It’s also of course entirely possible to write a gratitude list at any time throughout the day. This is especially important if you find that you are struggling at any particular moment.

Write another gratitude list. Or at least read through the one that you’d previously written.

Depression and gratitude cannot coexist

Depression and gratitude - Tikvah Lake Recovery

Gratitude gives us positive energy. It enables us to do more positive things in life, and that will mean feeling more positive about ourselves and the world around us.

Yet the other side of this is that if someone continually focuses on the negative aspects of life – from how they think, and who they mix with, to social media and the news – that will always have a negative impact. It will, at least, play a part in many mental health issues.

But negative states of being such as depression, anxiety, and stress cannot coexist while someone is being grateful. Gratitude is like shining light into darkness – it can never be dark while the light is shining.

Anybody who writes and reads a daily gratitude list will start to use their positive neural pathways – and the negative neural pathways will start to become overgrown through lack of use. The negative way will become increasingly inaccessible while the positive route gets increasingly easier to go along.

It always leads to a wholly positive way of living.

Our friendly experienced team of experts has helped people for decades now with all types of mental health problems. Call us today to learn how we can help you or someone you know.

David Hurst - Tikvah Lake Recovery

About David Hurst

David Hurst has four books published on mental health recovery, including 12 Steps To 1 Hero, The Anxiety Conversation and Words To Change Your Life. He has written for national newspapers and magazines around the world for 30 years including The Guardian, Psychologies, GQ, Esquire, Marie Claire and The Times. He has been in successful continual recovery since January 2002.

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