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Wellness Matters: Developing an attitude of gratitude starts with focusing on little things

By Bill Nolan
KyForward columnist

Previously, in this column, I have written about wellness matters related to substance use and addiction. Much of my work over the last several years has focused on this particular problem facing many of my clients and their families. Over the years, I have learned a great deal from my clients as they worked to overcome their abuse and addiction. Many of these clients struggled to put their lives back together after losing so much because of a drug or alcohol problem.

As these clients worked to become sober and clean from drug use, they then had to face their feelings of hopelessness and fear. A very important aspect of their recovery involved working on developing gratitude, certainly challenging in the midst of overwhelming depression, guilt and fear. I would like to share with you a simple but effective approach to developing a more grateful outlook.

Begin by asking yourself every day what are you grateful for. The focus here doesn’t have to be monumental. Little things give us plenty to be grateful for. And some of the things you consider will pop up every day. Many of my clients express gratitude for their sobriety, along with support from others, every day.

The challenge next is to ask yourself, what else are you grateful for after you include two or three familiar and consistent things? What are the small things that you are grateful for today? And the more specific you can be with this, the more effective this process will be for you.

Then, take time to write these things down every day. You can write it your list once a day, at a time that his easy for you to remember. Or you can keep a running list throughout the day. It doesn’t matter. For the next 30 days, write down 10 specific things you are grateful for. The writing down of things you are grateful for is a very important step in this process and shouldn’t be overlooked.

During a particularly stressful time in my life, I decided it was important that I practice what I preached. I started to keep a list every day of the various things for which I was grateful. Every morning I would get up, start some coffee and take my dog on a brief walk. As I walked I would go over all the things for which I was grateful for that morning. Then when I returned home, I would fix a cup of coffee and write down these things. As I did this over several weeks, I noticed two things happening for me.

First, I became much more aware of things throughout the day that normally I took for granted. My list always included the love and support I had from my wife. It also included my three sons and the relationship I had with them. But my awareness began to include the little things around me.

The fact that my dog always woke up in a happy, ready for the day mood compelling me to get up and get going… Sometimes it was as simple as the pleasant smell of a fresh cup of coffee, the crispy cold air on a sunny fall day, the laughter of a small child playing outside. As I did this each day, I noticed my mind started to search for things to add to my list. And more times than not, I discovered an awareness about the things already around me, already going on everyday. But because of the stress of everyday pressures, I hadn’t noticed in a while.

Second, after a couple of weeks of keeping to this routine, another change started to occur. As soon as my alarm went off, which was usually my dog letting me know it was time to get up, my mind immediately started the gratitude list. I found myself waking up with my first thoughts being, “What am I grateful for today?” This would happen even before I had my first cup of coffee. And believe me when I say I typically don’t start mornings well without that first cup of coffee!

I would like to point out that as simple as this exercise is, a key element is to take the time to write down the specific things you are grateful for each day. Don’t just keep the list in your head and move beyond general things. By writing down the things you are grateful for on a daily basis, you actually exercise your brain in such a manner as to help it shift perspective. You begin to focus more on the positives of each day. This shift can help you develop an ability to become more optimistic and more hopeful in your outlook. And while problems you are dealing with may still be there, your ability to cope with them often changes. Your ability to persevere, to face another difficult day increases a little each day as you become more resilient. And with this change, people often begin to see possibilities where before they were overwhelmed and confused.

Finally, there is one feature or quality of gratitude that bears mentioning. Gratitude needs expression. Without it, it loses something. Think about it. When you are truly grateful to someone for a particular act of kindness, doesn’t it beg to be expressed? I think too often, like the small things that we take for granted, we also take for granted the need to express our gratitude at times to others.

One last thought that I feel I should mention. As this article bears out, I am a big believer in developing and maintaining an attitude of gratitude. As I mentioned before, I have seen the benefit of doing this work as I have watched many of my clients use this approach as they worked through very painful and dark periods in their lives.

I know that some reading this article may need additional support and help facing their feelings of hopelessness and depression. Sometimes people will need professional expertise and guidance in order to get to a place where they can begin to do this work. If after reading article you feel you are too overwhelmed, too paralyzed by discouragement, then seek out additional help so that you can live more with more gratitude and hope.

Bill Nolan is a licensed marriage and family therapist who practices at Access Wellness Group, a Lexington-based group providing counseling and addiction treatment services to individuals, families and Employee Assistance Program client companies. He works with individuals and families, focusing much of his work helping clients deal with problems related to addictions and recovery. In addition, his background and experience has led him in developing a passion for helping people who at times have been spiritually wounded.

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