Ray Wiley Hubbard is a Texas singer who was popular in the 1970s and a few years ago had a small revival. One of his later releases is “Mother Blues,” which concerns events in a Dallas nightclub of that name. Overall the song is only modestly entertaining, but the last lines stuck with me. They go like this:
And the days that I keep my gratitude
Higher than my expectations
Well, I have really good days
I tend not to read much significance into song lyrics. However, when they memorably summarize a concept supported by objective and reliable evidence, song lyrics can be useful. And something about the way Ray Wiley put this worked for me. Keeping my gratitude just a hair higher than my expectations was something I could visualize. It was something I thought I could do.
Since then, when I feel down I’ll sometimes envision a balance-beam scale that is slightly tilted higher on the gratitude end than on the expectations end. This somehow helps to lift whatever gloom has settled in and encourages me to take a more positive attitude.
When I feel down I’ll sometimes envision a balance-beam scale that is slightly tilted higher on the gratitude end than on the expectations end.
With regard to the suicide death of my only son Brady at age 16 in October 2016, keeping gratitude higher than expectation has been challenging, to put it mildly. Often my disappointment with life has been so profound that I would be most grateful to leave it immediately.
But I have found that by summoning an image of that tilted gratitude-versus-expectations scale, I can sometimes work up the feeling that I am at least a little bit more grateful to have had Brady for the time he was with me than I am disappointed in my expectation that he would outlive me.
I can sometimes work up the feeling that I am at least a little bit more grateful to have had Brady for the time he was with me than I am disappointed in my expectation that he would outlive me.
When I can do that, the gloom generally brightens a little. And even a tiny bit of light can be tremendously encouraging when the clouds are gathering and it looks like a tornado of sadness, yearning and guilt is about to pull me up into the funnel.
Gratitude for Creating Happiness
The evidence supporting gratitude’s value in coping with emotional upset goes well beyond “Mother Blues.” One of the best descriptions of how this works is in a book called “The How of Happiness,” by Sonja Lyubomirsky. I like this book because it is based on scientific evidence and presents an actionable program for turning research findings into real-world results.
If you are only going to do one thing to try to be happier, expressing gratitude might be a good choice.
Lyubomirsky describes a dozen happiness-boosting activities including cultivating optimism, learning to forgive and taking care of your body. First on the list? Practicing gratitude, which she calls a sort of metastrategy for creating happiness. Basically, if you are only going to do one thing to try to be happier, expressing gratitude might be a good choice.
Lyubomirsky, herself a research psychologist, piles on the references. The gratitude and optimism chapter alone lists 50 sources, including popular magazines, textbooks and manuals in addition to peer-reviewed academic publications. I won’t list all those here, of course, but one research finding did strike me as particularly good and worthy of highlighting.
A Basic Look at Gratitude’s Benefits
This study came out in 2003 in the Journal of Personal and Social Psychology, a well-regarded academic publication with high standards. The lead researcher is Robert Emmons, a psychology professor from University of California-Davis who has focused on gratitude through a long and continuing research career.
The study itself is straightforward in approach. The title – “Counting blessings versus burdens: an experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life” — explains it well. The researchers actually did three studies to gather evidence.
In two of these studies, subjects were asked to list one of three things: 1) hassles, 2) things they were grateful for and 3) neutral events or social comparisons. In the third, people with neuromuscular diseases were asked to either do gratitude lists or do nothing (this was the control group.)
Results suggest that a conscious focus on blessings may have emotional and interpersonal benefits.
Here’s the summary of findings from the abstract: “The gratitude-outlook groups exhibited heightened well-being across several, though not all, of the outcome measures across the 3 studies, relative to the comparison groups. The effect on positive affect appeared to be the most robust finding. Results suggest that a conscious focus on blessings may have emotional and interpersonal benefits.”
Gratitude for Grievers
Fine, but what about bereaved people? I have found no research focusing specifically on whether gratitude can help survivors deal with bereavement grief. I found a lot that, like the Emmons study quoted above, indicate gratitude can help with overall mental and emotional health. Many studies in particular find gratitude helps relieve depression, which is a big component of grief.
One 2010 study, “Gratitude and well-being: A review and theoretical integration,” seemed to do an especially good job of summing up existing research on gratitude. Like other researchers, the British and American psychologists who produced this review of the literature found gratitude has a reliably positive effect on people’s emotional and mental health.
Practices that can help you develop more gratitude include making gratitude lists, contemplating things you are thankful for and behavioral expressions of gratitude.
The researchers also describe what people mean by being grateful and, in a particularly helpful section, describe research examining specific practices that can help you develop more gratitude. These practices included making gratitude lists, contemplating things you are thankful for and behavioral expressions of gratitude.
How to Be More Grateful
The gratitude list seems to be the most-researched kind of gratitude booster. It’s simple to do. You write down a few things you are grateful for. That’s it. And it’s been found to be effective in all the studies I saw.
Weekly rather than daily gratitude list-making seems to produce the biggest benefit.
Some studies have found long-lasting benefits from a single gratitude list session. Others looked at regularly repeated gratitude list-making sessions over weeks or months. Lyubomirsky says that weekly rather than daily gratitude list-making seems to produce the biggest benefit.
A contemplative gratitude practice consists of just thinking for a few minutes about what you’re grateful for. Behavioral expressions of gratitude might include writing a thank-you letter to somebody or visiting someone to thank them for a gift or other boon. These can work too, according to the research. If you don’t like making lists, maybe a visit or letter would help.
My Gratitude Practice
I do the weekly list. Each Sunday I write down five things I’m grateful for. It’s not always easy. I have often if not quite always felt strongly ungrateful about life in general since Brady died. It can be difficult to get past the pain and grief and find anything to be grateful for. However, I do my best and usually find some things for which I truly feel grateful, even amid the hurt and loss of my only son’s death. Sometimes I find a lot and have trouble limiting myself to five.
These have included “Having a wonderful son like Brady for 16 years” as well as “Having two living daughters who seem to be doing well.” I’ve expressed gratitude for money in the bank, for supportive family members, for a new girlfriend, for slowly getting through the worst of the grief and so on.
I can’t say I am immediately a whole lot better after a gratitude session. I keep doing it, however, in the hope that it will have significant effects over the long term. It just takes a few minutes and doesn’t hurt or cost any money. So why not?
I’ve expressed gratitude for money in the bank, for supportive family members, for a new girlfriend, for slowly getting through the worst of the grief and so on.
If you want to know more about this topic, I recommend reading Lyubomirsky’s book. Chapter Six may be of particular interest, since it directly addresses how to remain happy in difficult and even traumatic circumstances, including loss due to bereavement.
There are also many popular books on positive psychology, of which gratitude research is a branch. One bestseller is Daniel Gilbert’s “Stumbling on Happiness.” For a quick and economical take, you could listen to Gilbert’s TED Talk, “The Surprising Science of Happiness.”
The Caveat Section
As is usually the case with psychological interventions, expressing gratitude doesn’t help everybody equally. A significant minority of people – about 1 in 4 in one study — show no measurable benefit from gratitude practice. Lyubomirsky herself confesses that she doesn’t personally like or seem to benefit from gratitude practice. Yet the research strongly suggests that most people will be significantly helped, so she endorses it as a basic happiness-boosting tool.
A significant minority of people – about 1 in 4 in one study — show no measurable benefit from gratitude practice.
If, like Lyubomirsky, you don’t care to try feeling more grateful, I have no interest in convincing you otherwise. Grieve Well reports my experience combing grief research for evidence-based ways to survive my son’s death. The things I write about are not for everybody and may not be for you. Of course, I hope that this information is helpful. That’s why I’m doing this.
Whatever method you choose to deal with your loss, I am sorry that you experienced it. Thanks for reading, liking, commenting, sharing and re-posting. And whether or not you find a way to, as Ray Wiley Hubbard recommends, keep your gratitude higher than your expectations, I hope you get some peace today.