Why Gratitude?

Providing coaching worldwide and counseling in Denver, Colorado, it is my pleasure to work with people from many different ethnicities, relational orientations, and economic statuses. In fact, I love the diversity of clients who trust me with some really tough issues. Some are struggling with seemingly paralyzing anxiety or crippling depression. Some are haunted by abuse from the past, an unfair break-up, or just adjusting to new surroundings and trying to fit in. Each client is dealing with a unique set of problems, and it is part of my philosophy to tailor interventions for them as a doctor of optometry would customize an eyeglass prescription. Although there is no one-size-fits-all method that will be effective for every client, there is one activity that I rarely find will not produce a positive outcome: Focusing on gratitude.

Why gratitude, you may ask? When you hear the word gratitude, it may conjure up images of a toothy-smiled motivational speaker on TV, or perhaps Pollyanna singing in a meadow filled with daisies. Too many times I’ve heard a perky cheerleader-type say, “When life hands you lemons, make lemonade!” No, I’m not referring to simple positive thinking. I’m referring to a real, genuine focus on gratitude.

In some instances, I’ve handed my clients a tablet of yellow-lined paper and a pen. I then give them instructions to write down as many things for which they are grateful in 10 minutes, with no repeats. Invariably, the list begins with items such as friends, family, food, shelter, and all the basic needs in Maslow’s hierarchy. Soon, however, I’ll notice my client will pause and look at me as if they don’t know how to continue. In these instances, I simply nod and encourage them to continue. Before long, they’ve gone on to the back of the page, writing furiously, barely noticing I’m in the room any longer. They frequently seem surprised when I interrupt at the end of 10 minutes and insist on adding a few more items that come to mind.

On a particularly challenging day a few weeks ago, I found myself participating in this task on my own. I experienced the same phenomenon that my clients experience. At the end of 10 minutes, I found that I had just scratched the surface and was getting into the real, authentic things for which I was grateful. Since I wasn’t on anyone’s clock but my own, I granted myself another 10 minutes of writing. At the end of the exercise, I found that I had written down over 225 things for which I was grateful — in the span of just 20 minutes! That’s over eleven items per minute.

When I completed this exercise, I asked myself the same question that I ask most of my clients: What are you getting out of this exercise? The answer always has a certain flavor that goes something like this: I didn’t realize how many things I actually have to be grateful for. I really am living in abundance, and I didn’t even know it! I guess things aren’t as bad as they seem. I feel really good about my list — can I keep it?This simple exercise is a quick way to turn things around when it feels as if life is just not going the way you want it to. However, I must again stress that it’s not just positive thinking. Although the first few minutes might feel forced and artificial, soon a shift occurs and the activity begins to flow with velocity. The things that end up on people’s list are always different, but they are real, authentic, genuine items for which clients are grateful. They are not forced, fake, or things for which my clients feel they ought to be grateful for. Indeed, the list serves as a reality-check, not a creation of fantasy.

I don’t know exactly why this activity works. I’m not a neuropsychologist, and therefore I’m not terribly concerned with why or how activities cause shifts in the brain. I’m just interested in what works. One theory is that by creating a list of things for which one is grateful on paper, more senses are engaged, thus creating a vivid experience for the participant. It’s as if the client were experiencing each item on their list as if were happening right now. Studies have shown that the brain cannot tell the difference between a vividly-imagined experience and actual happenings in reality. Creating a brainstorm of gratitude may cause a chemical release of endorphins and serotonin — both thought to play a role in increased happiness. Additionally, it may create new neuropathways (thinking patterns) in the brain, that open up a whole other realm of possibilities.Among other benefits, this activity can help clients get unstuck. It puts those who try it in touch with a certain part of themselves that is unmessable-with. It can help identify new strategies for resolving relationship conflict (if it doesn’t dissolve it completely), ideas for gaining employment, or even generating additional sources of income. It’s as if simply by thinking of things for which someone is grateful, a certain magnet is created for more prosperity and abundance to appear.

The next time you’re caught sounding like Eeyore from Winnie-The-Pooh, consider making a gratitude list. You might be surprised how things shift — not just for the day, but even long-term. Indeed, focusing on gratitude has a snowball effect. At the very least, you may experience temporary peace-of-mind. And that’s something we can all use a little bit more of.

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Jeremy Savage, MA, LPC

2727 Bryant St. #104
Denver, CO 80211


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