For myself, it’s been news of friends dying, and meetings with people who’ve suffered unbearable family losses. I encountered a woman recently who had just received a harrowing, life-changing medical diagnosis. “I can’t,” she said.
Thanksgiving brings loved ones and friends together. Gratitude itself can be healing. But how do we feel grateful when there is so much suffering? For anyone experiencing heartbreak or deep disappointments, here are five simple acknowledgements to help with handling this season of appreciation:
1. Acknowledge what’s meaningful in your life.
Happiness is transitory. What is more enduring is meaning — especially during challenging times. So focus on meaning, rather than happiness. Meaning is related to life satisfaction, the will to live, effective coping, and even hope. We discover meaning by pursuing fulfilling goals. Nietzsche said, “He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how.”
2. Acknowledge those who show up for you.
There’s no denying that having a social support system is critical to well-being. Loneliness is such a killer that it’s now globally identified as a public health issue. When feeling isolated, it’s easy to dwell on those people who used to be around but aren’t anymore. What’s more important is to notice the people who do show up, no matter what. They may or may not be the oldest friends, or even the ones we’ve invested in the most. But they are the ones who persevere — and that perseverance, especially during times of suffering, is like a precious gem.
3. Acknowledge what you have — on paper.
Our brains have a built-in negative bias. We automatically notice what we don’t have rather than what we do. We see what we can’t do rather than what we can. Our brains developed this bias as a survival mechanism to detect threats in an unsafe environment, and it kicks into full throttle especially when we are suffering, or hear bad news. It shapes our attitudes about ourselves, the world and life. To heighten our awareness of what’s good, worthy, and uplifting, we have to constantly override this tendency. But since our thinking so often steers to negative, it may take putting a pen to paper to actually remind ourselves of positive experiences. Doing so can markedly shift our outlook.
4. Acknowledge your gifts and how you give them.
There’s a Chinese fortune I’ve received many times: “The best way to heal a broken heart is to lift someone else up.” Recent neurobiological research supports this assertion. Giving, especially giving support, outweighs the benefits of receiving — particularly in the areas of the brain associated with stress and reward. Helping someone else reduces our stress and feels rewarding in the process! Caring for someone or something – even as small as a plant – strengthens our will to live, and enhances our health. So focus on what you can give, not what you can get.
5. Acknowledge the beauty of the natural environment.
We spend our days addicted to computer screens and many evenings hooked on television screens. In-between, often on “breaks,” we stare at our phone screen. No wonder our brains are screaming. Being outdoors has multiple health benefits, from reducing stress to improving our moods. And then there’s something else: being in nature produces feelings of “awe,” and awe-inspired scenes are a natural antidote to suffering. Go outside, and zero in on something you discover in the natural environment.
For at least 30 days, focus on these five acknowledgements. Write down what you experience. Then ask yourself again: ”How can I give thanks when there’s so much pessimism and suffering?” You’ll notice a shift in how you feel and how you see the world. Every small step we take toward gratitude changes our brain, creating new neural pathways that heal our attitudes and moods, shifting the “I can’t” to “I will.”