Practicing gratitude during divorce may seem as unlikely as an elephant riding a bike. However, many studies now validate the link between keeping a gratitude journal and an increase in joy, enthusiasm, and the feeling that life is getting better. Research has shown that individuals who kept a gratitude journal were more apt to reach out to others and willing to offer support than those who did not; giving and receiving support can help to make divorce an easier experience for all concerned.
In a study done at the University of California, Davis, subjects either kept a gratitude journal or wrote about problems or neutral subjects weekly. At the end of the study, those in the gratitude group achieved their goals quicker and scored higher in feeling more positive about their lives.
Psychologists Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough are in the forefront of doing research in the field of gratitude and find that those who practice it report an increase in their amount of exercise and are more optimistic about what is happening that week. (See "Counting blessings versus burdens: Experimental studies of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life".)
Medical researchers have used an EKG as one tool in determining the effects of gratitude on the heart. These studies are indicating that practicing gratitude has a positive effect on the parasympathetic nervous system, which regulates heart rate, rhythm, blood pressure, and other body functions. Thoughts influence body functions. Happy thoughts (like gratitude) increase endorphins (the “feel-good” neurotransmitters), and angry ones cause constriction of blood vessels, which can lead to cardiac disease.
Energy goes where your thoughts are, and if your focus is on misery, then that is what you’ll experience. One woman was miserable working extended shifts with little time off in order to pay for necessary repairs on her fixer-upper house. Then she had a revelation: she had a job when many were unemployed, so she was able to pay for repairs/renovation without incurring debt. After turning this negativity around into gratitude, there was a shift in her other areas of life. She was thankful for her health and family. When she changed her attitude regarding her job, she started to enjoy the camaraderie of co-workers and was grateful for the income. Practicing gratitude in one area – such as being glad to have a good job – spills over to other parts of life.
Practicing gratitude is like practicing an instrument: one gets better at it as time goes on. It is similar to developing more muscle mass: the muscle gets larger with more training. Start by listing three to ten items for which you are grateful every day in a journal. For me, one of these entries is a
Life can be drudgery or interesting depending upon your focus. When you look for the positives, you’ll find them. Challenge yourself to find several positives each day; this will not only benefit you, but it can also impact your children. If one item you’re thankful for is having fun with your kids, just think how making enjoyable events (such as pizza night with a movie on TV) a priority will reduce your stress. If a parent is more relaxed and appreciative during this turbulent time, this can favorably affect the kids – and even the pets.
Training yourself to look for the good in life helps to change the focus from “poor me” to seeing yourself becoming a happier, a more empowered person. This is a great strategy for divorce and beyond.