Gratitude actually serves as a highly impactful coping mechanism for adversities. Gratitude helps people reframe their memories, transform adverse experiences into wisdom, and enables negative events to have less harmful impact on our lives (McAdams & Bauer, 2004). When we remember an event and express our gratitude for it, we essentially change how the memory is coded in our brains. Thus, the next time we go to retrieve that memory, we remember the gratitude we felt, instead of just the challenge the event initially presented us.
For me, gratitude has been critical in coping and persevering through difficult life events. I can still recall in December of 1997, how gratitude helped me process a car accident that I know should have ended my life. While on my way to visit a friend, I had just started to drive again after the traffic light turned green, when I heard a loud screeching and saw a quick flash of a car coming into my driver’s side door. I didn’t understand what was happening at the time, but the impact tossed my car in the air into a triple rollover. My car eventually landed on its wheels in an intersection. Two men ran over to help me because my car was smoking and got me out of the passenger’s side. They brought me into a close by nail salon. In a flash, a crowd of EMTs who were together at a holiday party up the street came to help me and got me in an ambulance to the hospital. Miraculously, I was alive and had no broken bones. The airbag deployed while the car was upside down and singed the top layer of skin on my neck, I had a few small specks of glass in my cheeks, I had bitten off sections of the sides of my tongue and had TMJ (minor lock jaw), and had ripped the skin off the side of my hand in an odd attempt to “stop the car the spinning” by putting my hand out of driver’s window onto the road gravel as the car spun on its side.
I look at this event now and can’t believe that gratitude was not my immediate emotional response. It’s clear in retrospect that this should have ended me. But, my initial response was resentment and loneliness, because a pre-existing delusion of being impermeable to danger was gone. This event made me realize that there was a lot I was completely not in control of and some of those things could seriously hurt me. I felt these negative feelings for a while, until it hit me what could have happened. All of the sudden, I recognized that I could have died, I could have been paralyzed, I could have broken or lost a limb. I recognized how fortunate I was that those two men came to help me out of my car because these strangers cared about my well-being. I recognized that I only had more than 10 EMTs immediately at the scene because it was two days after Christmas and they were up the street having a party. I recognized how fortunate I was to have my parents who zoomed to the hospital, and my friends who checked on me regularly and got me out in the weeks afterwards when I wasn’t feeling great. I felt grateful that God must have had some plan for me and wanted to keep me around longer to fulfil it. The experience ultimately made me feel greater purpose in my life and gratitude to all those who were there to support me.
Gratitude has helped me cope with many other experiences over the years, including the loss of grandparents and some friends who were too young to become angels. Gratitude helped me grieve and mourn the loss of people I love by making me recognize that they still live in my memories and my love. Death cannot take away the beautiful impact a person has on your life, and it can’t stop you from smiling as you remember the time you spent with the person.
Gratitude does not remove negative emotions from our lives—feelings like stress, anxiety, sadness, anger, and all the others in between are simply part of the normal human experience. However, gratitude helps to dampen the severity of those emotions, diminish how long they last, decrease the negative impact they have on us over time, and make us see the good that may exist in a bad situation.
Research on Gratitude Use to Cope & Persevere through Life’s Challenges
A study by Wood, Joseph, & Linley (2007) examined whether gratitude was correlated with coping and well–being, studying 236 individuals in the United Kingdom. The study found that gratitude was related to seeking emotional and instrumental social support, positive reinterpretation and growth, active coping, and planning. The researchers also found that those with higher levels of gratitude experienced less behavioral disengagement, self–blame, substance use, and denial. Furthermore, those with greater gratitude had higher levels of happiness and satisfaction with life, as well as lower levels of stress and depression.
Chun & Lee (2013) conducted an interview study with 13 current and former patients of U.S.-based rehabilitation hospitals to examine the experience of gratitude following a traumatic spinal cord injury (SCI). The qualitative study found that after experiencing trauma and living with illness, those who made an effort to appraise their lives positively were more likely to view their lives as a gift or second chance. All participants expressed feeling more gratitude for their present lives and realizing the importance of the little things. Participants came to appreciate the support of their family members much more than before. The majority of participants who expressed gratitude were excited to talk about potential future life adventures, gained better insight into themselves and their lives, and became more thankful for their personal growth experiences. Religious/spiritual participants also expressed that they felt more gratitude to God for their renewed physical and mental capabilities.
A study by Vernon, Dillon, & Steiner (2009) examined the relationship between gratitude and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptom severity for 182 U.S. college women with trauma histories. The most frequently reported traumas were motor vehicle accidents (25%) and life threatening illnesses or injuries (17%). The study found that women who retrospectively reported higher levels of gratitude in response to trauma reported fewer and less severe PTSD symptoms months and years after the trauma.
Kashdan, Uswatte, & Julian (2006) examined the relationship between gratitude and well-being in 77 combat veterans in the U.S. with and without PTSD. The study found that veterans with PTSD displayed considerably lower dispositional gratitude than those without PTSD. Furthermore, dispositional gratitude was correlated with greater daily positive emotions, a higher percentage of reported pleasant days, more daily intrinsically motivating activity, and higher daily self-esteem.
A study of 67 breast cancer patients in Italy, conducted by Ruini & Vescovelli (2013), examined the correlation between gratitude and posttraumatic growth, psychological well-being, and distress. The study found that those with higher levels of gratitude exhibited greater post-traumatic growth, positive relationships, positive emotions, relaxation, and contentment. Higher gratitude was also associated with lower levels of distress, anxiety, depression, hostility-irritability, and overall symptomatology.
Ng & Wong (2012) examined the relationship of gratitude with depression, anxiety, and sleep in 224 patients in China experiencing chronic pain. The study found that patients with chronic pain who reported higher levels of gratitude experienced less depression and anxiety, and better sleep.
A study conducted by Algoe & Stanton (2011) examined the correlation between gratitude and social relationships in 54 women in the U.S. with metastatic breast cancer. Such an illness can lead individuals to experience chronic stress is an ego-fragile environment where they are often required to rely on others’ support. The study found that ego-transcendence (letting go of the ego to accept help) is correlated with feeling gratitude upon receiving a benefit from another person, and that responding gratefully to such benefits increases perceived social support over time.
Finally, Lau & Cheng (2011) studied 83 older adults in China, ages 55 to 85, to assess whether a brief gratitude intervention could reduce death anxiety. Participants were randomly assigned into one of three conditions: Gratitude (recalling and writing about several events for which they felt grateful), Hassle (recalling and writing about several events they considered annoying), and Neutral (recalling and writing about several important life events). The study found that participants in the gratitude intervention reported lower death anxiety than those in the hassle and the neutral conditions. Essentially, by reexamining life events with a grateful attitude, individuals may become less fearful of death due to a feeling that their life has been well-lived.
What Do Those Who’ve Used Gratitude to Persevere through Challenges Have to Say?
Star Staubach, a Kentucky-based Energy Transformation Strategist, shared that she believes the natural way to gratitude is by experiencing deprivation. She told me a story about a friend who was going through bankruptcy. Her friend became immensely grateful for all the things she once took for granted, because she was no longer able to afford some of the most basic necessities and comforts. What her friend still did have, she became that much more grateful for during a difficult time.
Laura Clark, a Rhode Island-based Certified Soul Coach, shared how she exercised gratitude to get through a car accident that involved her partner and three dogs. She told me, “Except for a sore neck, my partner was unharmed physically. For this and two of our dogs being okay, I felt so blessed.” Laura’s 10-year-old Labrador was thrown from the car. After an eight-day search, she was found, and sadly had passed forward. Laura told me, “I was able to stay positive and inspire faith because of my own personal attitude of gratitude and knowing, in my soul, all would be not necessary as I wanted it, but as it should be, and for this, I am forever blessed.”
Martha Tassinari, a Massachusetts-based Certified Professional Holistic Coach, told me about how her gratitude was crucial in helping her to cope with being diagnosed with and treated for lung cancer. She shared, “I truly believe that my practice of gratitude created a major mindset shift from victimhood to victory. I am cancer free today. How do you practice gratitude when you are experiencing a ‘dark night of the soul?’ The key is to learn how to see the gift in every moment. The ability to cultivate gratitude can create a powerful shift and transform your life. I’m living proof.”
One of the most powerful stories of how gratitude can be transformational during times of adversity, was shared with me by Lisa Cox, an Australia-based Speaker and Mentor. Lisa was hospitalized for a brain hemorrhage, which left her with a multitude of negative health-related impacts. She told me, “Gratitude was one of the saviours during my first year in hospital. I know for certain that had I not been in a country with exceptional medical teams, I would not be alive. I’m grateful to the strangers who saved my life, and my amazing family and friends who unknowingly remind me every day, just how lucky I am.” Lisa shared that she needed her gratitude during this time more than ever because she as receiving bad news about her health prognosis on a daily basis. She told me, “A brain hemorrhage had left me partially blind. Surgeons were going to amputate my left leg, right toes, and nine of my fingertips. I would need open heart surgery and a total hip replacement before my 28th birthday. Yet at the same time, I was immensely grateful because I wasn’t in the Palliative Care ward. And eventually, I would get to go home, albeit in a wheelchair, which I still use today.” Lisa credits a long-term, preexisting practice of gratitude with her ability to positively persevere both during and after her hospitalization. She shared, “Sure, I have a few extra challenges, but in the grand scheme of things, I have so much to be grateful for. I live modestly and focus on being grateful for what I DO have, rather than what I don’t. Relatively, my challenges are nothing compared to so many others around the world.” Prior to her illness, Lisa spent time overseas and witnessed the poverty and hardship that millions face every day. In recent years, she and her husband have travelled overseas to volunteer at orphanages for children with disabilities. Lisa said of this experience, “These children had nothing. There definitely weren’t any iPads, smart phones, or Facebook accounts. Some had no eyesight or hearing and others had missing limbs and severe brain disorders. Of course, as orphans, all of them had no parents. Regardless of those facts, these children were some of the happiest kids I have ever met.” With so little, they were grateful for so much.
Finally, I share the gratitude practices of Pamela Bryson-Weaver, Canada-based bestselling author of Living Autism Day by Day: Daily Reflections and Strategies to Give You Hope and Courage, Founder of www.LivingAutismNow.com, President of the Autism Society in New Brunswick, Autism Advocate, and mother of three, including her youngest son, who has Autism. She shared, “When you’re downtrodden and bombarded with problems, being grateful can often take a backseat. Human as we are, it takes a lot of willpower and focus to see the good side of everything. The tendency to blame and to regret is much easier to do. For us, living with autism 24 hours a day, seven days a week, this can be somewhat challenging. Our lives are packed with uncertainty, unfulfilled needs, and even violence. Cultivating gratitude will definitely bring in more energy, focus, and enthusiasm into your everyday life.” Pamela told me that her practice of keeping a gratitude journal inspired her to write her book. She exercises gratitude by asking herself three questions before going to sleep each night: (1) Who/What inspired me today? (2) What brought me happiness today? (3) What brought me deep peace and comfort today? She shared, “It could be a hug or a chuck-full of laughter from your child, a phone call from a friend, a favorite song played on the radio while driving somewhere—it could be anything that uplifts your spirits. The key here is to commit and dedicate a few moments of your time to mind these blessings. The deeper we appreciate, the more our lives flow in harmony with the creative prowess of the universe.”
Bringing it All Together: 7 Exercises to Boost Gratitude During & Following Life’s Challenges
1. Turn Adversity into Advocacy: The Adversity 2 Advocacy Alliance is a wonderful inspiration for this exercise. They are a nonprofit organization that empowers people to turn personal challenges into service to others with similar challenges. Consider how you can show your gratitude by using your experiential wisdom to support people who are experiencing a similar adversity.
2. Compare & Contrast Your Unhappiest Life Event with Your Life Today: “Think about one of the unhappiest events you have experienced. How often do you find yourself thinking about this event today? Does the contrast with the present make you feel grateful and pleased? Do you realize your current life situation is not as bad as it could be? Try to realize and appreciate just how much better your life is now. The point is not to ignore or forget the past but to develop a fruitful frame of reference in the present from which to view experiences and events (Emmons, 2013 May 13).”
3. Confront Your Own Mortality: This sounds morbid, I realize, but research supports its surprising benefit in raising gratitude. Cozzolino, Staples, Meyers, & Samboceti (2004) developed this exercise to incorporate the three main elements of a near-death experience. In the scenario, you imagine waking up in the middle of the night in a friend’s 20th floor apartment, hearing screaming and smelling smoke, trying to escape, but eventually succumbing to the fire. Then, ask yourself the following questions: (1) Describe in detail the thoughts and emotions you felt while imagining the scenario, (2) If you did experience this event, how do you think you would handle the final moments?, and (3) Describe the life you led up to that point? The exercise helps to enhance gratitude by facilitating recognition of the good you have done in your life, all of the things you have to appreciate, and how you want to manage the adversity of any situation.
4. Recall an Unpleasant Memory & Write about the Positive Aspects: Recall an unpleasant memory—a loss, betrayal, victimization, or another upsetting experience (Emmons, 2013). “Try to focus on the positive aspects or consequences of this difficult experience. As the result of this event, what kinds of things do you now feel thankful or grateful for? How has this event benefited you as a person? How have you grown? Were there personal strengths that grew out of your experience? How has the event made you better able to meet the challenges of the future? How has how the event put your life into perspective? How has this event helped you appreciate the truly important people and things in your life? In sum, how can you be thankful for the beneficial consequences that have resulted from this event?” Finding reasons to be grateful leads to fewer negative intrusive memories, like wondering why it happened or if it could have been prevented.
5. Recall Gratitude for Someone Who has Passed On: The loss of someone we love can be one of the hardest experiences for anyone. Emmons (2013) suggests the following exercise, “Think about what you have learned from the person who died. What life lessons were passed on? How many smiles did that person give you? How many times did he or she cause you to laugh? Or how many meals and good times did you have together? … You can be grateful for all these gifts even as you mourn the loss of the person who gave them to you (Emmons, 2013).”
6. Write a Thank You Letter to Someone Who Has Passed On (Emmons, 2013): We have talked about the process of writing a Gratitude Letter to someone you are grateful for in “The Whys & How Tos of Gratitude.” Even when someone has passed away and you cannot deliver the letter to him/her, the process of writing a Gratitude Letter to the person you love is both therapeutic and helpful in coping with the pain of your loss.
7. Consider Your Support Network: During or following a challenging time, sit down and think about your support network. Who showed you care by listening or providing assistance? How did the person(s) make you feel? Recognizing that you have people who care for you boosts your sense of gratitude and makes you realize that you even when times are difficult, we have people who are willing to go through the challenge right along with us.
I think it is important to note again that whatever we go through—whether it’s the loss of a job, home, or loved one; an accident or illness that results in physical challenges; a trauma that causes emotional difficulties; or any other adversity, we must allow ourselves to feel it. Let yourself experience the pain, including the sadness, anger, fear, and other negative emotions. Trying to shut them off completely is not emotionally healthy, and generally leads to more problems later down the road. However, incorporating gratitude practices into your emotional coping can significantly enhance your well-being in so many important ways. Try any practices that seem most relevant and effective for you when you need them. It can do a world of good in moving you through your pain more healthily and quickly, and finding the gifts that exist in a challenging experience.
Algoe, S. B., & Stanton, A. L. (2012). Gratitude when it is needed most: Social functions of gratitude in women with metastatic breast cancer. Emotion, 12, 163-168.
Chun, S., & Lee, Y. (2013). “I am just thankful: The experience of gratitude following traumatic spinal cord injury. Rehabilitation & Disability, 35(1), 11-19.
Cozzolino, P.H., Staples, A.D., Meyers, L.S., & Samboceti, J. (2004). Greed, death, and values: From terror management to ‘‘transcendence management’’ theory. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 30, 278–292.
Emmons, R. (2013). Gratitude Works!: A Twenty-One-Day Program for Creating Emotional Prosperity. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Emmons, R. (2013, May 13). How Gratitude Can Help You Through Hard Times. Retrieved from: http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/how_gratitude_can_help_you_through_hard_times
Kashdan, T.B., Uswatte, G., & Julian, T. (2006). Gratitude and hedonic and eudaimonic well-being in Vietnam War veterans. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 44, 177-199.
Lau, R. W. L., & Cheng, S.-T. (2011). Gratitude lessens death anxiety. European Journal of Ageing, 8(3), 169-175.
McAdams, D. P., & Bauer, J. J. (2004). Gratitude in modern life: Its manifestations and development. In R. A. Emmons & M. McCullough (Eds.), The psychology of gratitude (pp. 81-99). New York: Oxford University Press.
Ng, M., & Wong, W. (2012). The differential effects of gratitude and sleep on psychological distress in patients with chronic pain. Journal of Health Psychology, 18, 263-271.
Ruini, C., & Vescovelli, F. (2013). The role of gratitude in breast cancer: its relationships with post-traumatic growth, psychological well-being and distress. Journal of Happiness Studies, 14, 263-274.
Vernon, L. L., Dillon, J. M., & Steiner, A. R. W. (2009). Proactive coping, gratitude, and posttraumatic stress disorder in college women. Anxiety, Stress, & Coping, 22, 117–127.
Wood, A. M., Joseph, S, & Linley, P. A. (2007). Coping style as a psychological resource of grateful people. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 26, 1076-1093.