Can You Improve Your Gratitude?

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

Clinical Psychologist

Published by Dr Damon Ashworth

I am a Clinical Psychologist. I completed a Doctoral degree in Clinical Psychology at Monash University and a Bachelor of Behavioural Sciences and a Bachelor of Psychological Sciences with Honours at La Trobe University. I am passionate about the field of Psychology, and apply the latest empirical findings to best help individuals meet their psychological and emotional needs.

30 thoughts on “Can You Improve Your Gratitude?

  1. Dr. Damon I am so grateful you are doing well and recovering! This post spoke to me on so many levels. Thank you for sharing. It is a beautiful reminder to be more grateful. Praying for you. Thanks for sharing. Your blogs are always so powerful and relevant.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. It’s great to hear that you’re doing well now; I, myself, am starting to learn and train myself in Positive Psychotherapy as a Counselling Psychologist and I would love to share your example of how gratitude helps you live a happier life.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I am very sorry to hear you went through this. It must have been a big shock. Glad that you are ok.

    Thank you for following me BTW, I am a bit in flux at the moment and not knowing whether to continue with my blog or not, so just removed my 6 followers I think I had 😆 and then put it to private. I am also a bit… unstable at times… and try to delete/and remove myself in some form often. 🤦🏼‍♀️ Not sure what that is all about.

    Gratitude is important. And strength often comes from the mind.

    I am thankful for my life and everything in it much more now.

    Take care…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you. I think it can be scary to put ourselves out there in any way, and with it can come a bit of vulnerability. Doing things to try to reduce that vulnerability sometimes makes sense to me. I always think back to Brene Brown’s TED talk on the power of vulnerability, and the subsequent books she has written after that. Even though the video had millions of views, she felt shame about putting herself out there so much and wanted to take it down

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thank you for this. I think that there is a lot of shame and vulnerability in putting oneself out there. I go through periods of feeling its fine, and then through periods of almost like I’m not allowed or I should just delete it or all or my followers. Which I’ve done with several blogs. That is interesting about Brene Brown. Thank you for mentioning that.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I wish you well and a future with good health. I am about to flip over to the site you recommend as I’ve already written down 8 things that went well today and I feel amazingly grateful to be reminded of them. Just when I thought the day was drab I am finding positive things in it. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. What a scary experience it must have been to suffer a stroke and having to endure all the additional problems you have mentioned. I am glad to see that you are presently feeling better and that you are taking care of yourself.

    Also, I feel very grateful that you shared your experience as well as your expertiese in this post.

    Personally, I am trying to find at least three good things at the end of each day. Another technique I am finding helpful is practising the inner smile as I have learned it through Qi Gong practice. This is basically taking a loving, observarant stance towards oneself while accepting what is. Further it seems to be a valuable skill to think in solutions rather than in problems. It helps to find more reasons to be grateful.

    We never really know, how long things last or when something is actually going to end. This includes our own lives. It’s always a good idea to make the best of each moment – in a sense of allowing for love and happiness as good as we can.

    Please take care of yourself – but I am sure you are doing so.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Damon,

        Taking care of ourselves is always a work in progress, I suppose. Only sometimes it feels more like work than at other times. The important thing is that we are walking the path. 😊

        Erm… I’m not usually promoting my blog on other people’s posts, but if you are actually interested in the practise of the inner smile, I could share two links of posts I have written, providing deeper insights about my personal view on this. Only if you are interested and feel it might hold some inspiration. Just let me know.

        Liked by 2 people

    1. That’s great. Yes, I would say that people that are religious or practice their faith regularly probably have more gratitude than the average non-religious person. I lived with another family when I was 16 who said grace before every meal, and something simple like that can make a big difference.

      Like

  6. Wonderful 👏 I can see the attitude of gratitude all throughout your post. People are drawn to hope because you offer it to them as well. I wish I could say that was a strength of mine but it’s not. It’s good to know it can be cultivated.
    Blessings.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. If you find any of them helpful in increasing how much gratitude you experience, please let me know.

    Answer To Doctors Request!
    Yes Gratitude is one thing that helped to “Steer away from My very low moods in Sri Lanka” around year 2000. Only thing is I “Have to mention her name ,I picked up a Book called, “Taking Care of me, and in it was her e mail address! At that time Mary Kay was known as “The Gratitude Guru” She didn’t know where Sri Lanka was even! I didn’t have credits cads or money to do on the phone, so she coached me with free E mails. And I hardly had any idea of E mails and Websites. Now see Doctor “How far I have come”!

    Actually it was very simple. She sent me an E mail with 5 Gratiudes, Like “You have a good home to live in” “You have your father to Take Care of you” and asked me to “Write 5 new Gratitudes and E mail her once a week.So what happened is “I was looking for new things to write daily.: The sky is very Blue today” “There is some pretty flowers in the garden”. So Without knowing, “My Mind was turning and becoming Positive”!

    Same way after Migrating to Australia, in 2009. I trained and did Volunteering in TAFE. Also had an excellent Consultant Psychiatrist I cannot write his name here I am not sure. He saw my Face Book page and Encouraged me to write and then, Doctor is aware of my Websites. As I was speaking, “Suddenly he said” In short what You are saying is You have come back to Normal”. A Word I never thought I will hear!

    Then again I started studying for “A Diploma ~ Theory and Practice of Counseling and Psychotherapy” which led me to “The Constructive Approach to Cognitive Behaviour Therapy” by Donald Meichenbaum. And then now I have completely Got over My low moods and “Taking The Therapists voice forward! Which is “All in My website. I have published 173 Articles”!

    I hope Being “A Top Psychologist I have Not offended You in any way’. I Wish You The Best of Health and Happiness In 2022. And I am Very Sure “You will be Healthy from This Time on” 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Doctor you will not need the book you are well qualified. That’s the main thing. Only a person can send to each other or asa group. That way it’ll be interesting and also it can continue for some time until it becomes a habit. Until such time one becomes positive. Thank you so much for replying. I am honoured. Wish you the Best of Health. Please don’t over work. As a mother I am saying this. Wish you Long Life with Good Health. Happy 2022 😀

        Liked by 1 person

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