Out of the 24 possible character strengths in the VIA Character Strengths Survey, only five are strongly associated with satisfaction with life. People with hope, zest, gratitude, curiosity and the ability to love and be loved as their top strengths seem to have higher life satisfaction.
Gratitude has never been a strength of mine. Every time I have taken the survey since 2012, hope, zest, and gratitude have never even been in my top 10 strengths. In fact, only curiosity has been a top-five strength, coming in at #3 in 2017 and #2 in 2018.
But then something happened.
I’ve already written about the details, but I suffered a stroke on January 2nd, 2021, was misdiagnosed three times, nearly died, had emergency brain surgery, and spent over a week in a coma. I was then in a hospital for over a month and spent the next six months doing regular outpatient rehab.
It is now over a year later. Apart from some minor balance and coordination difficulties, everything else is how it was. I’m back to working as a Clinical Psychologist and, in general, enjoying my life.
Last week, I went through different personality assessments with a colleague and re-took four tests to show them what the results would look like.
On the VIA Character Strengths Survey, my #1 strength was gratitude. I was shocked initially, but upon further reflection, I really do feel lucky to be alive and be able to think clearly and interact with those that I care about.
The flap in my artery that contributed to my stroke is still there. So I could have another blood clot and stroke again in the future. Looking after myself and taking regular medication lowers my risk of recurrence, but nothing is guaranteed, and I don’t want to take anything for granted. So I want to appreciate everything I can. My friends and family. Where I live. The work I get to do. As many moments that I am alive as I can.
Life may not always be easy, but at this stage, I’d much rather experience the ups and downs and joys and sorrows than no longer be here.
I haven’t always felt this way. For a long time growing up, I would have been glad if a stroke took away my life prematurely. But it is interesting how nearly losing your life can make you appreciate what you have more.
The Psychiatrist and Author Irving Yalom found something similar when he worked with a group of patients with terminal breast cancer. Many even said that it was a pity that it took until they were nearly dead to start living fully. Yalom concluded that even though death is the end of us, reminding ourselves that we will one day die can enervate and energise us.
Apart from having a near-death experience or reflecting on our inevitable death one day (practising memento mori), there are several things that you can do to improve your level of gratitude.
The two that I have most commonly heard of and tried myself are the What Went Well exercise and the Gratitude Visit.
What Went Well?
For the What Went Well exercise, the aim is to get into a daily habit of noticing the positive things that happen in your life. You could start a specific gratitude journal or include What Went Well in your usual journal. I have been using the Stoic app on my phone and having this question as one of the prompts in my daily writing exercise.
Whatever you choose to write in, take a few minutes each day to think about three things that went well during the day. It might be something that you appreciated, felt good about, or were grateful for. Ideally, this could be different things on different days, but it is okay to also say similar things to another day if you want to. For example, I kept writing down gratitude for my health, being alive, my partner, and her daughter. I’m also thankful for my family, friends, cognitive faculties, reading, walking, and enjoying nature or a nice meal. It can be whatever you want it to be.
The Gratitude Visit
The Gratitude Visit takes more time than the What Went Well exercise and cannot be done as often. However, even one of these visits can have a lasting impact on how you feel. Firstly, try to think of someone who has had a positive impact on your life, but you maybe have never told them just how grateful you are for the things they have done or the influence they have had in your life.
Then, write them a letter, fully explaining the positive influence on you, and how much you appreciate them and are grateful for the things they have done.
If the international borders were open, I would want to fly back to Australia and thank my family for their assistance following my stroke. Unfortunately, this isn’t possible because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but I want to do it the next time I get back to Melbourne.
If you can meet up with the person you have written the letter to, please contact them and catch up together on a particular date and time. Then, when you are in person, find an appropriate place where you can read the letter to them aloud, take your time reading it to them, and allow them to respond back to you afterwards. Give each other a hug if this feels appropriate. Then be thankful that you have taken this step, try to be as fully present as possible, and enjoy the rest of your time together.
Other Gratitude Exercises
By browsing the Internet, there are several different gratitude exercises that you can find that I haven’t tried yet.
You could try the Give It Up practise and deprive yourself of something you usually enjoy for one week every month. It might be chocolate one month, red wine the next month, Facebook the third month, and Playstation the month after that. By seeing how you feel with and without these activities, you might realise more about what does and doesn’t make you feel good and not take the little things in your life for granted as much.
You could take a Savouring Walk for 20 minutes a day outside by yourself and see if you can notice different positive things that you usually do not. It might just be the intricate architecture of the building at the corner, or the smell of flowers or fresh cut grass, or the feeling of warm sun on your skin. Then see how this compares to the walks you do when you are rushing from place to place or caught up in your negative thoughts or worries.
You could Create Savouring Rituals, where you identify activities that bring you pleasure. Then, try to savour two of these activities every day, and allow yourself to enjoy it, not multitask, and feel whatever you do during these times.
You can also create an Awe Diary, Foster Admiration with your partner or another willing person, or try the Mental Subtraction of Positive Events or Mental Subtraction of Relationships. The Positive Psychology website is an excellent resource for more details about these exercises or the myriad benefits of gratitude.
If you find any of them helpful in increasing how much gratitude you experience, please let me know.
Dr Damon Ashworth