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Why Is Gratitude So Hard during the Pandemic?

paper on desk with "I am grateful for" written on it

Why Is Gratitude So Hard during the Pandemic?

By Jeremy Adam Smith, Kira M. Newman, Jason Marsh, and Dacher Keltner, PhD, editors of The Gratitude Project

In a pandemic and during a time of political turmoil, our well-being faces real threats To protect our mental health, we might try to meditate and reach out to our loved ones regularly; we should definitely be sure to eat well and get enough sleep.

But there’s one key to well-being that gets complicated in hard times: Gratitude, the reverence we feel for things that are given to us. “In gratitude, we realize how much we need each other to provide and secure for us things that we cannot provide and secure for ourselves,” writes pioneering gratitude researcher Robert Emmons in our new book, The Gratitude Project.

These are trying times when people are really suffering physically or economically, and when there is real political strife. That’s a complex backdrop for gratitude. During the pandemic, people worldwide have been moved to express thanks to essential workers, sending messages, making signs, and delivering food. But other forms of gratitude feel harder. Appreciating what we have in our own lives right now—or “looking on the bright side”—can seem misguided (if we have lost jobs or people), distracting, delusional, or even offensive and privileged.

In the midst of a crisis as all-encompassing as COVID-19 or as historically evocative as the Black Lives Matter protests, is there room for a way of thinking and feeling that highlights the gifts of life? New scientific studies suggest so, but it might take a bit of effort.

Sometimes, a wave of gratitude washes over us spontaneously, in a moment of peace when the family is all together and no one is bickering, or out on a picnic with friends or a hike on a beautiful day. Other times, gratitude might come packaged with guilt: “Gosh, no one I know has died, I didn’t lose my job, I have a comfortable home—so what if my summer plans got canceled? I should feel thankful.”

But gratitude doesn’t mean you float through life in a state of bliss, marveling at the awe-inducing beauty of the sky each time you head out for groceries. Sometimes, gratitude is a bit more like your at-home workout: It’s good for you and will pay off in the long run, but it might require some begrudging effort today. It’s when you don’t want to get out of bed that you could use the workout most, and you might need to need to give yourself an extra push.

When it comes to gratitude, that means pointing your thoughts toward the good things, even when they seem meaningless and outweighed by all the bad. It might mean taking a few minutes—maybe at the beginning or the end of your day—to write down a list of what went well the previous day. Or sending a thank-you message to someone who brought you cookies, watched your kids, or made you laugh. 

When you’re locked down or quarantined or physically distanced, it’s the small things that might matter most: a meal, a nap, a hug, a neighbor who looks after your pets. Reflecting on them gives your brain a break and a different focus—and that’s what makes the difference to your happiness.

“It is precisely under crisis conditions when we have the most to gain by a grateful perspective on life,” writes Robert Emmons in The Gratitude Project. “In the face of demoralization, gratitude has the power to energize. In the face of brokenness, gratitude has the power to heal. In the face of despair, gratitude has the power to bring hope.”

In other words, those moments of gratitude give us fuel to get through all the other moments in between.

In one study described in our new book, researchers found that people with chronic disease who kept a gratitude journal experienced positive emotions more and negative emotions less, connected better with others, improved their sleep, and felt more optimistic about the week ahead and more satisfied with their lives.

Another study done in the weeks after 9/11 found that resilient people were less depressed because they were able to experience positive emotions like love and gratitude. When we feel gratitude, areas of the brain light up that are involved with how we regulate emotions and relieve stress, and our brains get a deeper sense of reward from generosity—all qualities that are helpful today.

If that all isn’t enough, practicing gratitude might also help you stay healthy

“Feeling grateful and recognizing help from others creates a more relaxed body state and allows the subsequent benefits of lowered stress to wash over us,” writes neuroscientist Glenn Fox in The Gratitude Project.

Gratitude can be a choice, but it’s yours to make. No one (yourself included) should be telling you that you must feel grateful. And how often you practice gratitude is up to you, just like exercise. Some days, the effort it takes might be more than you can muster. But as reluctant exercisers know, it usually feels so much better afterward, even when you thought it wouldn't.

The research described in The Gratitude Project shows that it gets easier and easier over time. You start to pay more attention to good things, to notice them and absorb them into your brain, bit by bit. Those moments of spontaneous gratitude can start to become a regular part of your life—one that lasts far beyond the pandemic. If you can feel grateful during a time like this one, then you’ll always be able to see the good things in your life.

red heart shaped leaves against a white background and title of book in a teal outline

Editor Jeremy Adam Smith edits the Greater Good Science Center’s online magazine, Greater Good. He is author of The Daddy Shift, and coeditor of three anthologies. His coverage of racial and economic segregation in San Francisco, CA, schools has won numerous honors, including the Sigma Delta Chi Award for investigative reporting; and he is a three-time winner of the John Swett Award from the California Teachers Association.

Smith’s articles and essays have appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Scientific American, Utne Reader, The Nation, Mindful, Wired, and many other periodicals, websites, and books. Jeremy has also been interviewed by The Today Show, The New York Times, USA TODAY, Working Mother, Nightline, ABC News, NBC News, The Globe and Mail, and numerous NPR shows about parenting and education. Before joining the Greater Good Science Center, Jeremy was a 2010–2011 John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University.

Editor Kira M. Newman is managing editor of Greater Good magazine, and a former course assistant for The Science of Happiness online course on edX. Her work has been published in a variety of outlets, including The Washington Post, HuffPost, Social Media Monthly, and Mindful magazine. She has created large communities around the science of happiness, including the online course, The Year of Happy; and the CaféHappy meetup in Toronto, ON, Canada. Previously, she was a technology journalist and editor for Tech.Co.

Editor Jason Marsh is founding editor in chief of Greater Good magazine, and the Greater Good Science Center’s director of programs. He is also coeditor of two anthologies of Greater Good articles: The Compassionate Instinct and Are We Born Racist?. His writing has also appeared in The Wall Street Journal, the San Francisco Chronicle, and Utne Reader, among other publications, and he writes regularly for the opinion section of www.cnn.com.

Editor Dacher Keltner, PhD, is founding director of the Greater Good Science Center, and professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. He is author of The Power Paradox and Born to Be Good, and coeditor of The Compassionate Instinct.