Regaining Your joie de vivre
The Saving Grace of Gratitude
Consistency is one of the most important factors in a successful gratitude practice, says Patricia Berendsen.
For Patricia Berendsen, 2020 was a grim time. Of course, the pandemic loomed large, as it did for everyone. She’s a registered psychotherapist, so it hit her business as it did all in person-to-person industries. She and her partner were living with a friend when the pandemic hammer came down. They had just sold a home and were having renovations done on the next house when supply chain issues slowed the whole process down to a crawl. Her mother had a health crisis and died later that year. But her own health crisis on New Year’s Eve of 2019 set up Berendsen for the need to find a way to navigate the depths of this dark time. She had been diagnosed with breast cancer at Christmas time and had surgery on December 31. “It was a crappy way to go into 2020,” says Berendsen.
Knowing that she’d have to dig herself out of a negative mindset – “it was just one crappy thing after another” – Berendsen thought about the medical benefits of gratitude. She knew she needed a more positive mindset to get through the discomfort of not being in her own home to recover from surgery and radiation, while dealing with losing her mother. As a therapist, she realized that negativity can impact physical health and the body’s ability to recover.
According to Harvard Health Publishing: Two psychologists, Dr. Robert A. Emmons of the University of California, Davis, and Dr. Michael E. McCullough of the University of Miami, have done much of the research on gratitude. In one study, they asked all participants to write a few sentences each week, focusing on particular topics. One group wrote about things they were grateful for that had occurred during the week. A second group wrote about daily irritations or things that had displeased them, and the third wrote about events that had affected them (with no emphasis on them being positive or negative).
After 10 weeks, those who wrote about gratitude were more optimistic and felt better about their lives. Surprisingly, they also exercised more and had fewer visits to physicians than those who focused on sources of aggravation. After trying several methodologies to improve her mindset – yoga, meditation, walking – Berendsen decided on gratitude journaling, but it seemed onerous to come up with a list of things about which she was grateful every single day. She started slowly with just one or two things, writing them down before bed. It helped her to sleep better, too. “It was good to have a practice, to build a mindset that was going to lift me up instead of down,” she explains. The other things she tried were helpful but didn’t allow for complete consistency due to weather conditions. Consistency is one of the most important factors in a successful gratitude practice, she adds.
Slowly she came up with a formula that was doable in just a few minutes. It is a three-step process that starts by asking ‘What am I grateful for about myself?’ That proved to be the most challenging part of the exercise. “It’s often the hardest to think of because we’re so outwardly focused, and especially when my body was betraying me.” Sometimes these self-appreciation notations were simple, like ‘walked to the mailbox today’ or ‘did the dishes today.’ Berendsen says this is important because “We need to have a positive relationship with ourselves first.”
The second and third on the list could be anything else she appreciated about the day. Often that would be about the kindness of the staff at the cancer treatment centre or someone else she encountered, or for the people in her business or family.
Next, she did a brief recap of what happened that day to add context. This is important because the last step is to add a sentence or two about what she had learned. “I would take some time to think about ‘what did I learn today?’ Sometimes I learned that I could go further on my walk than I thought, or that I’m really tired, and I do need to rest.” She adds that she learned things about her personality that were uncomfortable or that she was able to actually do nothing. The latter proved to be a challenge for this type A personality.
Three years in and Berendsen is still journaling her gratitude each night before sleep. She credits this with coming up with a short, doable way to journal and making it part of her daily routine. “I paired it with something I had to do, turn off the light before I go to sleep.” She adds that it doesn’t have to be a fancy journal: hers is a small notebook from the dollar store.
Patricia Berendsen's simple gratitude practice
- What about myself am I grateful for today?
- What else am I grateful for today?
- What happened today? (briefly)
- What did I learn today?
Jackie Mott discovered the power of gratitude as a young single mom supporting a child, while on welfare. Now a mindset coach and author of a newly released book Believe! All things Are Possible, Mott still practices gratitude to defeat stress. “We feel we have to push and fight for things and that state of being can create a lot of stress,” she says, adding that prolonged stress can be catastrophic to health: heart issues, stroke, digestive problems, headaches and fatigue. “Having a gratitude practice helps to find out ‘what do I have right now in my life’ and makes it easier to navigate difficult situations.”
When she was a stressed-out single mom having trouble sleeping, Mott came up with a method that she still uses and recommends today; she calls it ‘gratitude prayers.’ “Those were very, very tough times and I couldn’t fall asleep. I laid there and thought about what I did have instead of what I didn’t have. A car. Yes, it was a crappy, old car but it was still a car to get my kid and I around,” she explains. She would list all the positive things and people she had in her life and was able to fall asleep.
Mott now recommends taking this to a deeper level by asking, ‘What does this mean to me?’ She says this lets us truly appreciate the impact and importance of them.
In a moment of dire stress, when you need to find some peace, she recommends this exercise: Stop; take three deep breaths to centre yourself; pick three things that really matter to you. Take a one-minute deep dive, asking, ‘What do these people/things/ activities really mean to me?’ or ‘What do they bring to me?’ or ‘What is the feeling from doing this thing?’
“In under five minutes, you will go from highly stressed to calm with perspective on what’s important,” she says. “When you’re dealing with something in your business or a legal issue or medical thing – any of the really hard things we have to deal with – excuse yourself and go to the washroom to do this. You’ll come back better able to deal with the stress of that situation, whatever it is,” says Mott.
Jackie Mott's recommended prompts
- What am I excited about right now?
- What has gone REALLY right for me this week?
- What was a random act of kindness I’ve given or received recently and how did that make me feel?
- What am I looking forward to?
- What have I done recently that is worthy of celebrating?