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Opinion: Gratitude won’t cover up our problems, but it will help us heal

Practicing authentic gratitude helps us relieve depression, improves our immune systems and strengthens our connections with people around us

Expressing gratitude makes us healthy and happy.
Expressing gratitude makes us healthy and happy. Gratitude helps us lose weight, lowers our blood pressure and decreases stress. It helps us spend less and make more. Gratitude just plain helps us make better decisions.
Li Zhongfei

It’s that time of year, when most of us take at least a moment to stop and be grateful. This year feels a little different. No flooding of social media with the hashtag #givethanks, but plenty of pandemic fatigue and a seeming escalation in animosity toward people who think/act/look differently than we do. That makes me sad.

Gratitude isn’t some airy-fairy idea that leads to us grinding our teeth as we spit out a gratitude list. It’s not a superficial concept that comes around once a year and, I’ll admit it — it’s not just a hashtag. Neuroscientist Dr. Antonio Damasio, is quoted as saying … “We are not thinking machines that feel, but emotional machines that think.”

Gratitude makes us happier. Practicing authentic gratitude helps us relieve depression, improves our immune systems and strengthens our connections with people around us. It can help improve heart health (literally and figuratively), helps confer resilience to trauma, lowers stress and depression, and decreases stress hormones like cortisol.

Gratitude literally changes your brain. It releases the feel-good hormones of dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin but it also rewires synapses and helps us see more positives in our world. It simultaneously makes us more giving and less materialistic. Gratitude can also reduce impatience and improve our decision-making abilities.

Sometimes, it’s easy to bash a practice of gratitude. “Don’t you know how awful things are, Holly?!” Indeed I do — and gratitude can help us heal. I’m not suggesting (and neither is the research) that we Pollyanna our way through life and become toxic positivists. I am suggesting (and research backs it up) that gratitude can get us through even the darkest times.

When I was deep into mom burnout, I had a hard time finding things to be grateful for, so I started small. “I’m grateful for air conditioning.” “I’m grateful for sunshine.” “I’m grateful no one set the house on fire” until one day in May 2005 when I couldn’t say that anymore. Then, I was grateful that no one was hurt. I was grateful for neighbors and our local firefighters, for helping hands and giving hearts.

Many years later, I am still grateful for air conditioning and sunshine, but I am also grateful for some of the deeper things in life. I am grateful for lessons learned through deep grief and pain. I am not grateful that my daughters died. I am grateful that I got to be their mom and I am grateful for the many, many lessons they taught me. I’m even grateful for the tender heart that has been softened through grief.

Author Robert Emmons, an expert on gratitude, writes that “in the face of demoralization, gratitude has the power to energize. In the face of brokenness, gratitude has the power to heal. In the face of despair, gratitude has the power to bring hope.”

That doesn’t mean it’s easy. Please don’t give in to the temptation to tell another, “At least you ...” as you minimize their hurt — or to tell yourself that. Gratitude doesn’t mean dismissing others’ pain, or our own. Authentic gratitude doesn’t mean we won’t need therapy or medication or doctors’ visits or time with grief counselors and support groups.

According to Emmons, “processing a life experience through a grateful lens does not mean denying negativity. It is not a form of superficial happiology. Instead, it means realizing the power you have to transform an obstacle into an opportunity. It means reframing a loss into a potential gain, recasting negativity into positive channels for gratitude.”

We are all broken in some way — usually multiple ways — but that brokenness can also make us beautiful. It is a long-standing tradition in Japan to repair broken pottery with gold. Called “kintsugi,” this art form does not attempt to hide the brokenness, but turns it into beautiful art. Gratitude might just be the human form of kintsugi, turning brokenness into beauty.

Holly Richardson is the editor of Utah Policy and a columnist for the Deseret News. A former Utah legislator, she holds a master’s degree in professional communication and is one dissertation away from completing a doctorate in political science. She and her husband, Greg, are the parents of a large and unique family.