“We steer where we stare.” This quote by Lysa TerKeurst radically changed how I practice therapy with children and families. It’s easy to find reasons to complain. Or, to spend countless hours focusing our energy on the problems we face each day. I don’t know about you, but when I find myself sucked into that dark pit, I feel horrible. In the therapy setting, you often find people at the bottom of that pit. My goal is to help them shift their focus and open their minds to find a way out. One of the easiest tools I have found to do this: The Power of Gratitude.
One particular teen depicts the power of this shift beautifully. For the purpose of this post, we will call him Kyle*. I met Kyle shortly after he attempted suicide. Kyle had been found unconscious by his little sister. After meeting Kyle, it quickly became apparent that he had been through several traumatic events as a child. He was struggling to manage the pain and suffering he had experienced and continued to endure. Kyle continued to carry that emotional baggage with him from day to day.
I initially floundered around trying to identify things Kyle could find hope in. Then I assigned some homework that helped change the trajectory of his life. I gave him the best leather-bound journal I could find. His task was to write down something he was grateful for, or proud of, every single day. Some days it would be something big like passing a test. Some days it would be something small like taking a shower when he didn’t feel like it. Shifting his perspective in those brief moments each day helped begin to shift his perspective on his entire life.
Gratitude as an Intervention
Research indicates that gratitude interventions like journaling or letter writing can be as beneficial, and sometimes are more beneficial, than other interventions. The Greater Good Science Center at University of California, Berkeley found that people who practice daily, intentional moments of gratitude are happier. They are also more satisfied with life, less materialistic, and less likely to suffer burn out. While they noted psychological benefits like decreased depression and resilience after trauma, they also noted improved physical benefits like better sleep and less fatigue. One study found that gratitude journaling for heart failure patients over an eight-week span yielded decreased cellular inflammation. Neuroimaging also indicates that gratitude exercises activate reward centers and compassion centers in your brain, and you can improve overall brain functioning through gratitude practices daily (Allen, 2018).
After about few weeks of daily gratitude journaling, Kyle was displaying significant progress. His depression decreased, his suicidal thoughts were well-controlled, his self-harm had stopped, and his relationship with his mother improved tremendously. As I watched his progress, I decided to adopt this practice in my personal life. Every day before bed, each member of my family spends time “counting our blessings,” and we have found tremendous benefits in cultivating an attitude of gratitude in our children and within our family unit as a whole.
What Changed for Kyle?
Kyle recently completed his therapy journey with Crossnore, and as a part of our closing he completed a list of things he is grateful for, as he concludes this part of his therapeutic journey:
I am grateful that I graduated from high school.
I am grateful that I am working.
I am grateful I started earning my own money.
I am grateful that I am safe and adjusted at home.
I am grateful I have learned to trust people.
I am grateful I can admit when I am wrong.
I am grateful I am becoming less stubborn.
I am grateful I have become more independent.
I am grateful I am more confident.
I am grateful I am more mature.
I am grateful for reconnecting with my father.
I am grateful for the respect I have for myself.
I am grateful that I can appreciate myself.
I am grateful I am alive.
As Thanksgiving approaches, I encourage you to prioritize shifting your focus. Not just during this holiday, but in each day throughout the year. If you make an effort to look at and appreciate your blessings, more are sure to find you. What are you grateful for today?
Allen, S. (2018 May). The Science of Gratitude. Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley. Retrieved from: https://ggsc.berkeley.edu/images/uploads/GGSC-JTF_White_Paper-Gratitude-FINAL.pdf
*Kyle is a pseudonym