In these strange times, it can often feel like we’ve lost many things that bring us joy. We can’t see friends and family (at least not the ones we don’t live with), many of our outside passions and pastimes are banned in the lockdown, and we’re restricted to when we can leave the house.
So how can we be grateful – and is that even possible right now?
Gratitude is powerful. In fact, in psychological tests, it’s proven more powerful than any other virtue in boosting our health and wellbeing, says Kristján Kristjánsson, a professor of virtue ethics. “No one really knows why,” he says. “Some people think gratitude occupies some sort of a unique place as a ‘parent of all the virtues’.”
In simple terms, gratitude means searching for good things in our lives – and by doing it we train our brains to automatically notice good things, and be more positive. This is especially helpful for those of us who tend to focus overly on negatives or worst-case scenarios.
It’s an attitude that makes life better for ourselves and for others, Professor Robert Emmons, known as the world’s leading scientific expert on gratitude, tells me. A professor of psychology at the University of California and founding editor of The Journal of Positive Psychology, Emmons has studied this for years – but even he is struggling at the moment.
“Much of the coping advice I’m seeing right now advises practicing gratitude,” says Prof. Emmons. “It’s well-intentioned – but likely too difficult, even impossible, in times of crisis. I myself have been struggling feeling grateful.”
So how can we practice gratitude when it seems almost impossible?
Consider, instead, “gratitude forecasting”, says Emmons. “Imagine how grateful you will be when life returns to normal. Consider simple pleasures that you are currently deprived of, and then visualise experiencing those once again.”
This may be gathering with friends, seeing coworkers in person, dining out again, going to the park. “Perhaps these were things you used to take for granted,” he says. “Give thanks now for what you do not yet have but will.”
The ‘three things’
Professor Emmons says you don’t necessarily have to think of a set number of things you’re grateful for, as advice often suggests, but Chloe Brotheridge, an anxiety expert and author of Calmer You, believes this tactic can be helpful for certain personalities.
“Write down three things you’re grateful for each day and be as specific as possible,” she advises. “Or, at the end of the day, make a mental note of three things that went well that day. Another way to do this could be having a discussion over dinner with your family or partner – or friends on Whatsapp – about three things you’re grateful for about each other.”
The art of letters
Professor Kristjánsson says other good examples include writing a gratitude diary, where you note down every night the things you have been grateful for during the day, as above – or, alternatively, pen a gratitude letter. “This is where you express thanks to some perceived benefactor,” he says.
Think of someone in your life you’re grateful for right now. Why? How do they boost your mood? What specific things have they done to help? Write this all down in a letter to them – and if you’ve got a stamp and can leave your house, pop it in the post box on your next daily walk.
Or you may like to use this as a creative exercise, writing to a fictional character or object you appreciate – even if that’s just the last loo roll in your bathroom!