Gratitude During Challenging Times
Updated: Jan 22
The importance of taking a moment to reflect on what we're grateful for, and how this simple practice can reduce stress and increase empathy
It can be difficult to pause, reflect, and feel grateful when we're caught up in our daily routine. This can be even more challenging to do when we're feeling particularly anxious, angry, indifferent, or sad. It's easy to think of things that make us happy or people we're appreciative of when life is good. It's during times of increased stress when the practice of gratitude and reflection seem difficult.
Yet the benefits of gratitude are enormous and undeniable. The Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley published a white paper on gratitude.  A short summary of how gratitude helps us includes:
increased happiness and positive mood
more satisfaction with life
better physical health
lower levels of cellular inflammation
encourages the development of patience, humility, and wisdom
Research has further demonstrated that when we feel more grateful, we become more compassionate through increased feelings of empathy. 
Compassion and empathy are particularly relevant skills to practice now. We're all doing our best to adjust to this "new normal." Yet tragically, this pandemic has become politicized, further dividing our communities at a time when we need each other more than ever. Most people on earth have been directly affected by Covid-19 at this point, some more than others. The effects of the pandemic (economically and health-wise) will disproportionately harm our most vulnerable communities the most.
Learning to become more compassionate towards others and their sufferings through the practice of empathy allows us to find comfort during times like these. Yet, it's important to be aware of 2 things:
You don't have to discard your own suffering because someone else's is greater. That's not the goal here. Suffering is not a competition. Empathy does not discredit or minimize your own loss, pain, or hardship.
While I am encouraging readers of this blog to reflect on what they are grateful for regularly to mitigate stress, be careful not to demand people be grateful when they are suffering or grieving. This caution is well explained by PhD student Vinoadharen Nair Das in his article here. He explains, "there is a risk that you could end up invalidating someone else’s emotions (or even your own) when you encourage gratitude." I highly recommend reading his complete article, as it's particularly timely right now.
Reflecting on what you're grateful for can be as simple or profound as you want it to be. For me, the beauty of nature is something I am especially grateful for. As you might have noticed if you follow me on Instagram, I love wildflowers. The past couple springs in AZ have been spectacular! The picture below was taken at my childhood home a couple weekends ago as I celebrated a physically-distanced Mother's Day. I am so grateful I got to see the ironwood trees during their peak. Ironwood trees are one of my favorite native plants in the Sonoran Desert for the simple reason that I love their dusty pink and lavender blooms. Hearing the bees buzz around and collect pollen, while enjoying the shade the tree provides after a walk in the desert, is calming and peaceful for me.
Even if you're not ready to increase your empathy towards others yet, you can still personally benefit from remembering what you're appreciative of in life. Choose people, items, places, or experiences that you are grateful for. These can be big or small; anything that brings you joy, makes you laugh, helps you feel at peace, provides comfort and security, improves your health (physically, mentally, and emotionally), or reminds you that you are loved. Try to make a habit of reflecting on a few things you're grateful for each day. You might be surprised at how immediate the benefits are when you take the time to pause and reflect.
If you're ready to take this exercise a step further, one approach to developing a gratitude practice that also fosters the development of empathy for others is outlined in Drs. David Perlmutter and Austin Perlmutter's book, Brain Wash. They suggests keeping a notepad and pen by your bedside and taking a few moments in the morning or at bedtime to write down 5 things you're grateful for daily. As mentioned above, these can be as specific or general as you want. In addition to reflecting on these 5 things, also take a moment to thank someone for a specific action of theirs you are grateful for. You can call this person, text or email them, or express your gratitude in any other way you're comfortable with. As they explain in Brain Wash, "This type of prosocial behavior helps you and the person you're thanking."  An additional exercise that can be particularly beneficially during these times of increased polarization in our country, is to take a moment and reflect on why someone who holds a differing perspective from your own may think and feel that way. This reflection can increase your empathy and compassion for others, while simultaneously reducing your own stress levels.
At a time when so many of us are feeling heightened emotions, are adjusting to new challenges, and learning to accept what we can't control, remember to be grateful . And remember to be kind to one another, and our earth.
 Free PDF of White Paper: https://ggsc.berkeley.edu/images/uploads/GGSC-JTF_White_Paper-Gratitude-FINAL.pdf
 Kim, Grace & Wang, David & Hill, Peter. (2017). An Investigation into the multifaceted relationship between gratitude, empathy, and compassion. Journal of Positive Psychology and Wellbeing. Vol 2. No 1.
 Perlmutter D and Perlmutter A. Brain Wash. Little, Brown Spark; 2000.