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Gratefulness is good for mental health — even if it's hard

April 12, 2019

When we only focus on what's missing from our lives, we can develop a sense of negativity that's hard to shake. Taking time to appreciate the good stuff — trite as it may seem — is important, especially in tough times.

Polen Schnee in Gdansk
Image: picture-äalliance/NurPhoto/M. Fludra

"Gratitude is the healthiest of all human emotions."

These words aren't from the Dalai Lama, but from endocrinologist and stress researcher Hans Selye. The quote is part of a lecture by psychologist Dirk Lehr, who researches and teaches thankfulness at Leuphana University in Lüneburg, Germany.

From my personal observation, gratitude and appreciation are two attitudes that are as underestimated as they are essential for mental health. When it's most difficult for us to summon gratitude, it can often be the most important time for us to do so. 

For me, separating from the father of my child was a particularly dark time. Sometime ago, however, I learned that despite all the pain, there are things to be appreciated. And it's worth paying attention to them.

"Those who are grateful are able to see and appreciate the positive things in life," says Lehr, explaining how gratefulness fosters positivity. That's why I decided to give it a try.

Woman goes for a jog
A healthy body is one of the things that we miss particularly when we no longer have itImage: picture-alliance/dpa/S. Jaitner

Start small

Of course, being grateful is easy when everything works out. But even then, many things escape our attention; we tend to take things like safety, good health, and support networks for granted. It's often only when we suddenly lose these things that we are confronted with just how important they are. 

Perhaps this is the crux of gratitude: it comes more easily to those who learn, or are forced, to pay attention to the details. But just like sharing a friendly smile with a stranger, it's easy to forget how significant small acts of kindness and gratitude are — especially when things go wrong.

At the same time, it's much easier to be grateful for the little things in life WHEN everything goes wrong. When there doesn't seem to be anything worth being thankful for.

"I tell someone who feels that way: let's give it a try and start paying attention to little things," says health psychologist Dirk Lehr, who also works as a psychotherapist.

He and his team have developed a gratitude app — a kind of digital diary that helps capture the small, beautiful moments in life. With the help of photos or notes, "memory knots" can be tied, says Lehr. The more attuned we are to details, the more we open the door to gratitude.

A matter of practice 

The way I experience the world has changed in recent weeks. I can now enjoy the sun glistening on the river Rhine. The chirping of the birds lifts my spirits. When I run through the slowly warming spring air in the morning, I am happy that my body is fit and able. All this is not a taken-for-grantedness — quite the contrary.

Those who solely focus on what is missing from their lives are forever in a state of dissatisfaction. Of course it's normal to complain, says Dirk Lehr. After all, the ballast has to go somewhere. But, as he points out, "it becomes problematic when focusing on the deficit becomes the basic attitude."

The good news is, Lehr says a change of perspective and the ability to learn to appreciate beautiful moments is a conscious decision that everyone can make. But this conscious decision must be practiced, practiced, practiced. Gratitude is like a muscle — it can be trained, Lehr says. Training that pays off. Especially in bad times.

DW journalist Julia Vergin
Julia Vergin Senior editor and team lead for Science online