Practicing Gratitude With a Broken Heart

It's normal to close your heart as a protection mechanism against further pain, but a closed heart makes it much harder to see the things or people in your life that are good.

November 24, 2015
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If you’ve been hurt by someone you love then you might not be feeling so grateful as you move into the Thanksgiving holiday this week. It’s normal to close your heart as a protection mechanism against further pain, but a closed heart makes it much harder to see the things or people in your life that are good. Heartbreak works kind of like a general anesthetic in that it colors your perspective of everything including aspects of your life that are not connected to your current suffering. This is why the world seems darker and less beautiful than when you’re feeling deeply loved, supported and connected.

The good news is that you don’t have to feel grateful to practice gratitude. In fact, experts believe that it’s the repeated practice of gratitude–even when we don’t feel grateful–that will eventually lead to a more enduring attitude of gratitude.

Gratitude, stemming from the Latin word gratia, means grace, graciousness, or gratefulness. The practice of gratitude has been linked to happiness, better relationships, improved mental and physical health, and more resilience. Gratitude is no longer a simple act of thanks, and it isn’t just a theory or practice. Research has shown that grateful brains show enhanced activity in two primary regions: the anterior cingulate cortex and the medial prefrontal cortex. These areas have been previously associated with emotional processing, interpersonal bonding and rewarding social interactions, moral judgment, and the ability to understand the mental states of others. We now know that gratitude is much more than a quick fix, but a complex social emotion that involves morality, connecting with others, and taking their perspective.

If you’re facing your first holiday as a newly divorced person, without a parent, in a new town or in the midst of a challenging issue you’re not alone. The immediate culture and media would have you believe that everything is perfect because this is what most of the population wants to believe. In the aftermath of the Paris bombings, we know that the world is much bigger than the one we often experience in our daily lives, and you can keep this in mind as you manage the onslaught of forced “goodness” coming at you from your external environment. People may tell you to focus on what you have as a way to help you, but we can confirm that doing just that isn’t enough.

Even though you are struggling through this holiday season, being miserable doesn’t have to be a given. Heartbreak doesn’t need to create a barrier between you and the benefits of gratitude so drawing on the work of scientific researcher Robert Emmons, here are a few ways to generate a sense of gratitude when the desire isn’t there.

Go Through the Motions.

If you go through grateful motions, the emotion of gratitude should be triggered. Grateful motions include smiling, saying thank you, and writing letters of gratitude. This might be easier to put into practice with people you don’t know, or in casual settings like your local coffee shop or at your gym.

Pick One Thing.

Research shows that writing one sentence about five things you’re grateful for is less beneficial than writing five sentences about one thing you’re grateful for. Pick one thing you can feel grateful for and expand on that by listing why you’re grateful.

Consider a Non-Human.

Finding gratitude for a pet, a plant, or the greater natural environment eases the struggle of finding gratitude for a person. Our non-human counterparts are amazing healers of the heart so practicing gratitude with your furry friends or your natural companions will bring you powerful benefits.

Remember the Bad.

To be grateful in your current state, it is helpful to remember the hard times that you once experienced. When you remember how difficult life used to be and how far you have come, you set up an explicit contrast in your mind, and this contrast is fertile ground for gratefulness.

Come to Your Senses.

Through our senses–the ability to touch, see, smell, taste, and hear–we gain an appreciation of what it means to be human and of what an incredible miracle it is to be alive. Seen through the lens of gratitude, the human body is not only a miraculous construction but also a gift. Most of all remember that you’re not alone in how you feel. Millions of people will be “surviving” the holiday as opposed to enjoying it, and for many others the meaning of the holiday will need to be readjusted to accommodate the current state of affairs. Use this time as an opportunity for personal exploration, and create your own meaning in any way that feels right for you.

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