Life is short: Gratitude as we ease out of lockdown
by ARC Laureate Professor Sharon Parker
Sharon is a globally-renowned expert in the field of work psychology. As the Director of the Centre for Transformative Work Design, she leads a team concerned with improving the quality of work. She is an Australian Research Council Laureate Fellow; a Chief Investigator in the Centre of Excellence in Population Ageing, and a 2019 Highly Cited Researcher.
During this pandemic, there have been wonderful collective expressions of gratitude to thank essential workers, such as front-line medical staff.
As well as these shared thank-you events, more personally-oriented reflections about what we appreciate are important, especially now, as many of us ease out of lockdown. Such reflections can help us to figure out what is truly valuable in life.
Our research on the Thrive at Work at Home survey shows that more than one in three of the working people appear to be struggling mentally. In fact, whereas usually around 13% of the Australian population report high or very high psychological distress, our study suggests that right now, the number of people suffering is three times that number.
How might gratitude help?
Gratitude is good for well-being, happiness, and relationships. The Latin root of gratitude, gratia, is about being thankful.
Gratitude is about appreciating the positive things, events, and people in our life, big and small.
Elements of gratitude include appreciating other people, focusing on what you have, feelings of awe when encountering beauty, expressing gratitude to those who have helped you, focusing on the positive in the present moment, appreciation arising from knowing that ‘life is short’, and positive social comparisons (which means valuing aspects about your life compared to less fortunate others).
When people are grateful, positive emotions and behaviors follow. Research shows that gratitude promotes well-being, happiness and life satisfaction, and reduces levels of depression. A meta-analysis of 91 studies (involving N=18,342 participants) showed that gratitude also means you are more likely to help others, which explains why gratitude can improve people’s relationships.
Gratitude can be powerful, quite simply, because it generates positive emotions in which we feel more open and accepting. Gratitude can also help to ‘undo’ some of the negative physiological effects of emotions like worry and sadness.
The time is right to appreciate what matters
In some countries, things are opening up, and slowly returning to quasi-normal. This is a great time to pause and reflect on what we are grateful for.
Isolation and lockdown have made us appreciate some things we previously have taken for granted. For example, someone I spoke to on the weekend described how she had given her dad a hug for the first time in weeks, and how great that felt.
Personally, I have come to really appreciate where I live. In the past, I have often complained about how physically distant Perth is from other cities, and how much time it takes to travel to Europe and America. Now I feel grateful to live in this spacious and beautiful city! Not only has Perth’s physical isolation helped with getting control of COVID-19, but I also feel lucky to have been able to walk along the river and watch the sun setting over the sea.
I’ve also been grateful to have more time. With less overseas travel, less commuting, less socializing, I’ve rediscovered the joy of gardening; a hobby that I’ve neglected in the past several few years due to being “too busy”.
If I ask you what you are grateful for right now, I am sure that many things will come to mind – family, friends, your health, the health of others around you, colleagues, the contribution of essential workers… and many more. These might be big things, or small things. But reflecting on them might help, because crises remind us what is really important.
In a study of emotions after the terrorist attack on the United States on September 11th, 2001, a study led by Barbara Fredrickson, a Professor who studies emotion, found that experiencing positive emotions such as gratitude in the aftermath of this crisis helped to buffer resilient people against depression. Of course, after such a crisis, people experienced many negative emotions such as worry and anger, but feeling grateful during this time – such as appreciating that one’s family is safe – seemed to help counterbalance the negative feelings.
In another study of teenage survivors after the Wenchuan earthquake in China, the experience of gratitude predicted ‘post-traumatic growth’ (such as feelings of personal strength).
It seems that gratitude can help people re-establish meaning following a crisis.
We can apply these ideas to the current situation.
1. Reflect on what you appreciate about your life
Some people are more inclined than others to have an attitude of gratitude. But the evidence suggests most people can experience more gratitude if they make an effort to do so.
Several studies have been conducted to assess the impact of gratitude ‘interventions’. The classic one is to write down what you are grateful for on a regular basis (e.g., three things every evening before bed, or once a week for a month or so). Reflecting on these good things in life regularly helps to make it a more habitual way of thinking. There have been at least seven studies of such interventions, most of them showing that gratitude lists enhance well-being .
There are some questions to help you reflect on what you are grateful for in Box A below.
2. Express your gratitude
A different type of intervention involves expressing your gratitude – that is, letting people know you appreciate them. In one study, people wrote a letter to someone they were grateful towards, and then read it to the person. The findings were compared to those people who wrote about their early childhood memories. In this study, those who did the ‘gratitude visit’ were happier and less depressed immediately after the study as well as one month later. Another study with a similar intervention showed benefits were especially high for young people low in positive affect, suggesting that this intervention might be most valuable for people feeling low.
Even simply telling someone you appreciate them is likely to have positive effects, not just for them but for you as well.
3. Understand that gratitude doesn’t mean you can’t experience other negative feelings, or that you should deny other people’s reality.
During a stressful time like this, it is entirely normal to have feelings such as anger, sadness, or worry. Reflecting on what you appreciate in life doesn’t mean you should be trying to squash these more negative feelings. Rather, having positive feelings like gratitude alongside feelings like sadness or worry can help your overall well-being.
In fact, research shows that the experience of positive emotions –such as gratitude – can “undo” the negative cardiovascular effects of negative emotions.
Life is short. COVID-19 has reminded us acutely of this fact. Reflecting on what you are grateful for will help counterbalance any negative feelings you might have right now. Perhaps even more importantly, if you can understand what you have come to particularly appreciate during the lockdown, and remember this as things ease, it might help you to live the life you really want. Me, I’m going to spend more time in my garden and less time working.
BOX A: 50 GRATITUDE QUESTIONS 10 QUESTIONS RELATING TO COVID-19 1. What have you come to appreciate during the lockdown/this time? 2. Who are you grateful to have been able to connect with during the lockdown? 3. What’s something simple that you’ve missed during lockdown/this time that you’re now able to do (or looking forward to doing soon)? 4. What is something you have done that is different or new during lockdown/this time that’s brought you unexpected pleasure? 5. What has made your life easier or more bearable during this time? 6. Who has reached out to you and supported you during this time? 7. Which workers have you particularly appreciated during this time? (e.g., healthcare workers, supermarket workers, researchers, etc.) 8. How have you used any spare time during COVID-19? 9. What is something new that you have learnt (a skill or a hobby) during lockdown? 10. What is something positive that you have learnt about yourself during lockdown? 40 MORE GENERAL GRATITUDE QUESTIONS 11. What is one kind thing someone has done for you lately? 12. Who has made you the person you are today, and what would you like to thank them for? 13. Who is always there for you? 14. What is something positive to you that happened this week? 15. What or who made you smile today? 16. Who have you enjoyed spending time with lately? 17. Who has inspired you recently? 18. Has anyone made your job easier this week, or given you support in some way? 19. What is an aspect of your job that you enjoy? 20. Has someone given you time, attention, support, understanding, or care lately? 21. What has made today better than yesterday? 22. What have you learned recently? 23. What is the last song you listened to that you loved? 24. What’s a positive memory from your childhood? 25. Who have you helped lately and how did that make you feel? 26. What do you like about your home? What makes it “home”? 27. What is your favourite thing about where you live? 28. Who have you helped lately and how did that feel? 29. When did you last feel “awe”? 30. Who makes a positive difference in your life? 31. What are you looking forward to in the future? 32. How is your life rich? 33. What has improved about your life compared to last year? 34. What was difficult recently, and what did you learn about yourself in addressing this challenge? 35. When did you last think “life is good”? 36. When did you last appreciate a person for being who they are? 37. How have you progressed in your job or career lately? 38. How do your friends and family show you they care? 39. What movie / book / article / blog has made your life better lately? 40. What are your favourite moments in nature that make you feel happy, free, or at peace? 41. What is a simple pleasure you have experienced recently? 42. What is something beautiful that you have seen? 43. What are five things your arms or legs allow you to do that you enjoy? 44. What is positive about your health right now? 45. What is your favourite room in your house and why? 46. Which colleagues at work do you really like being around? 47. What is a way that your boss/ supervisor has supported you lately? 48. What is something really bad you thought might happen, that didn’t actually happen? 49. What is one small that victory you had recently? 50. What do you love about the neighbourhood/town/city that you live in?
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