Call me crazy, but I’ve always tried my best to feel grateful for tough times. Every job interview that didn’t pan out and every relationship that ended opened up the opportunity for bigger and better things. However, there are some times where it feels selfish, wrong, or impossible to look for a “silver lining.” Sometimes you can’t find the lesson to be learned, and gratitude journaling prompts just feel like bullsh*t. But the truth is that gratitude is not frivolous or naive; it’s a coping strategy.
Gratitude is what makes our good days feel even better, but more importantly, it is the tool that gets us through the bad days. Feeling grateful will not instantly return you to joyful bliss, and it won’t make you totally forget the difficult times; it would be naive to advise you to focus on the rainbow at the end when the storm is impossible to ignore. Instead of being a “cure-all” during difficult times, gratitude is a tool that can help us get through, even if we’re not sure we can. Here are seven tangible, concrete ways to find the good, even in the worst times:
1. Stop worrying about what you lack, and start being happy for what you have
When I feel especially anxious, it’s hard enough to get some sleep, much less a full eight hours. Recently, I realized I had two choices: continue to stress about how little sleep I was getting, or feel thankful for the amount I did get. It took some time, but I started to wake up and think, “Wow I got four hours of sleep to rest and rejuvenate my body!” instead of “Oh no, I only got four hours of sleep and will be tired all day.” And then the craziest thing happened: I actually started sleeping better.
The lesson here is the classic glass-half-full mentality. We’re all given a glass with a certain amount of water, and it’s up to us to decide whether it’s full or empty. We have the power to not only see the glass one way or another, but the power to change the reality of the water we do have. When a glass is half full, you feel like you have more (and like my hours of sleep, you might actually get more).
2. Start small
When you’re in one of those times when nothing is going right, find any little thing that is going right and cling to it: a sunny afternoon, a friend to call, the ability to breathe, a delicious meal. If you think about it, these “little things” are actually not “little” at all. Many things feel so normal that they’re often overlooked, but these “little” things often become the most important and meaningful parts of our lives. Make note of whatever you can find to be grateful for (no matter how small), and start seeking out more small things to feel grateful for every day.
3. Do one productive thing today that you enjoy
Sometimes it can feel overwhelming to think about getting anything done, much less checking off all the things on your to-do list (I’ve been there) or working a full workday. If you can, scratch your to-do list, and instead, just get one thing done that you enjoy. Cook a nourishing lunch, get outside and garden, or reorganize your closet (if you’re Marie Kondo and organization sparks joy). Accomplishing something small will make you feel a little more strong and capable than you did before, and you’ll have something new to be grateful for (like a delicious meal, newly-planted flowers, or an organized closet).
4. Try a gratitude meditation
I know I promised no fluffy exercises, but meditation might be the most effective tool to get out of your current mindset and into a new (more beneficial) one. You might come out of a meditation believing that something greater is waiting for you on the other side, or you might just feel grateful for your determination to push through. I love following this meditation from The Chopra Center during difficult times, but the point is to find purpose. Turn uncertainty into opportunity and hardships into lessons by finding a quiet space and either journaling or reflecting on a gratitude-focused meditation.
5. Don’t expect perfection
The happiest and most grateful people know that life isn’t always easy, perfect, or fair. The question is not if life is fair, but if we can move on in spite of the fact that it isn’t. Many of us fall into the pattern of “Once I move, then I’ll be happy,” “Once I make more money, then I’ll be happy,” or even “Once I can get out of the house again, then I’ll be happy.” But happiness dependent on any circumstance is just false; being happy is a skill, not an outcome. The hardest times can teach us how to truly achieve happiness, so don’t waste the opportunity.
Let’s be honest: you can’t fully be grateful that your significant other brings you coffee in bed every morning if you’re still pissed off about that thing they said last week. You can’t control a lot of circumstances, but you can control the way you experience them. Start by giving more compassion and forgiveness to loved ones to open yourself to more opportunities to feel gratitude.
Beyond the minor quarrels with people in your life, practice forgiveness on a greater scale. Forgive circumstances for not working out (like a canceled wedding or vacation), and forgive other people, no matter what. Whether they’re celebrities or coworkers, forgive others for decisions and actions you wouldn’t have made yourself. Remember that forgiveness does not mean being weak; it’s one of the strongest things you could do. Any negative word, thought, or comment hurts you much more than the person you’re expressing negativity about. Remind yourself frequently that the point of life is, in fact, to have compassion for one another.
7. Help someone else
On the topic of having compassion, the best advice I’ve ever received–whether it was dealing with anxiety, going through a particularly hard life phase, or getting over a breakup (high-school me thought the world was ending, naturally)–was to get outside myself. The cure to almost any bad emotion or life problem? Human connection and compassion. When we’re conscious of other people and their struggles, compassion is what helps each other survive.
Yes, you can still help others while staying six feet apart: make a donation to a non-profit organization, buy groceries for an elderly neighbor or a health care worker, leave a tip for the mailman, or check in on loved ones and send messages of support. You just might be reminded of how many things you have to be grateful for.