How Gratitude Literally Saved My Life

I remember being told in church during the midst of my depression that ingratitude was the greatest of all sins, and that God expected me to be happy and to praise Him every day of my life. Perhaps there was some real love behind these messages, but I certainly didn't feel it at the time. It felt like I was being told that my depression was my own fault, that I was "choosing" to be unhappy and that I could just as easily "choose" to be happy again, as if happiness was a simple switch to turn on and off. It felt like added cruelty to me and further pressured me to become an atheist, if God expected me to be happy about my infant daughter's death and about the faith crisis that followed it.

But over the years since then, I have found that a daily gratitude practice has been enormously effective at combating my own depression. I do not by any means intend to stigmatize those who suffer from depression. We do not "choose" to be depressed. When a tragedy happens in your life, the grief and pain that follows are part of being human. I think that people rarely want to continue to be depressed when they see a way out.

The truth is, I simply did not have the skills to deal with tragedy. I had been lucky enough to never experience such pain in my life before. I had no idea how to deal with it. It took me many years to figure out how to be grateful for anything in my life again. I spent every day for years wishing that I was dead, but continuing on in my life for the sake of my other children. I kept washing the dishes. I made lunches for my kids every day of school. I helped them with their homework when they could. I even continued to try to write as part of my career. But except for brief moments when I felt like I forgot what had happened to me, I was miserable all the time.

My daily meditation practice ended every day with three moments every day that I was glad I had been alive to see. Not only did I find myself seeking out more moments of sheer pleasure, but I found that reliving the happy times once a day made me see my life differently. I've heard some people say that it's a matter of a changed attitude. I don't know if that's what it was for me or not. It wasn't that my loss seemed more manageable to me or that I felt like my suffering was put in perspective by the bigger picture. It was simply learning how to be happy for just a little while, when I could.

In case you think that my grateful moments were some grand events, they weren't. They were ordinary, daily things that most people let pass them by and never think twice about. Here are a few examples:

1. A hug from one of my children.
2. The delicious taste of a favorite food.
3. An email from a friend.
4. The feel of hot water on my skin in a bath.
5. The sensation of a new pair of socks on my feet.
6. The smell of pine trees in our backyard.
7. A kiss and an encouraging smile from my husband.
8. A few minutes to reread an old, favorite book.
9. Watching a TV show that I love and has a new season available on Netflix.
10. The sense of comfort and warmth that comes from snuggling under a handmade quilt.

There was a miracle in this daily reflection of glorious, ordinary moments. Day by day, I found myself looking forward to my gratitude moments, collecting them earlier and earlier, and then seeking them out. I realized that there were things I could do to create moments I was grateful for, but that there were also many moments that came to me, without my control, and this was healing for me in a way that perhaps I cannot explain, except to say that for someone who blamed herself for everything bad that had happened in her life, it was a relief to see that it turned out I wasn't in control at times, and that was a good thing.

If you are interested in trying out your own gratitude practice, let me recommend that you not make lists of general or vague things you are grateful for. I may theoretically be grateful for a roof over my head, for sufficient money to buy food, for the chance to live in America with the freedoms we enjoy, for good medical insurance, etc. But those are rarely things that make me feel happier to be alive.

In addition to my list of three moments each day, I added to my gratitude practice a list of people who I felt sure loved me. Thinking about them at the end of the day seems to bring their spirits to my bedroom, and hold them there to watch over me, if only for a few minutes each day. Whatever nasty emails I've received from people who disagree with my essays, in this time at the end of the day, I feel safe and protected. I push out the negativity and just feel at peace.

I do not mean to suggest that making a gratitude list alone cures depression. I also tried different medications and had many therapy sessions with a wonderful therapist after going through several therapists who did not work for me. But I don't use medication now and I only see my therapist occasionally. The thing I do every day for my own mental health is this daily gratitude practice. It isn't flipping a switch. It isn't a choice so much as it is a habit or a skill I've learned. But I do believe it saved my life. It made me see that my life was still worth living and I would hope that the same could be true for others who read this. Try it for a week and see if it changes your life, too.

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