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The lost (and found) art of gratitude

Is feeling grateful the real secret to happiness? Is it the key to less stress in these pandemic times? Or is it just another social-media fuelled self-help trend?
Last Updated : 05 September 2020, 20:30 IST
Last Updated : 05 September 2020, 20:30 IST

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There’s not a corner of our mental and physical landscapes that the pandemic has left untouched. If we were to do a word cloud, we’d see anxiety, fear, loneliness, helplessness and exhaustion all over it. Thousands of lives lost, lakhs of livelihoods turned upside down and the uncertainty of not knowing when we will see a vaccine or a pandemic-free dawn — in such unprecedented times, what role has gratitude come to play?

Rukmini Kumar, Consulting Editor, Penguin India, explains: “When things are taken away from you, you find yourself focusing on what you have and your loss teaches you gratitude for what you have. It may not be immediate, but it comes.”

Observing how the pandemic and the lockdown that followed came as a shock, she says, “Forced to stay indoors, it was but natural that our gaze and our attention would turn inwards, as it were.” Based on the realisation that life can change in an instant, our gratitude has definitely grown, she notes, adding, “Forced to slow down, we’ve learnt to shift our attention to the small things at home, to what we have, to our health and to our lives.”

Gratitude journal

The need to shift attention to the things that we might not notice in normal times has led many to take up the practice of gratitude journaling. It’s a practice where people count their blessings, put down affirmations and intentions every day. There’s also the practice of using gratitude jars where you write down things you are grateful for and store them in jars. Does consciously practising gratitude in the form of journals and jars help? Organisational psychologist Shalini Duggal says it does because journaling helps bring attention actively to what you have.

For travel writer/blogger Lakshmi Sharath, gratitude has been the pillar to lean on during the pandemic. She first took to gratitude journaling three years back when she struggled with endometriosis, a painful condition, because of which she had severe anxiety and panic attacks. The journaling helped her change her perspective about everything, not just endometriosis, she notes. “After a few days, I noticed that my mind would automatically start feeling grateful for everything in life — be it a flower in the garden or a project. I also started learning how to be gentle and kind to myself,” she adds.

It’s thanks to social media that poet, performer and TEDx speaker Tuheena Raj learnt about gratitude journaling. She started the practice when she needed a way to wind down after managing her day job and her passion project of poetry. “Our lives have become so mindlessly fast-paced that we forget to take a moment to truly process our emotions and acknowledge our feelings. I wanted to pause with intention. It has been over a year of jotting down affirmations and consciously spelling out what I am grateful for in an analog diary and trust me, it is therapeutic.”

It has stood her in good stead even as the pandemic persists. “When motivation levels are dwindling because of reduced social interactions, you have to literally scrape the bottom to find moments of joy,” Tuheena says. Journaling has revealed to her that “being able to stay at home is a comfort and luxury in itself, when there is a humanitarian crisis out there.”

The social media gaze

Gratitude as a practice has gained ground among some sections of society, if social media hashtags and accounts are anything to go by. How often have we not seen #countyourblessings #gratitude #feelinggrateful or other similar hashtags on social media?

But it’s not just on social media that concepts like gratitude have gained currency. Books on gratitude, like other concepts of positive psychology, such as mindfulness, have been gaining in popularity. We ask Rukmini about the impact of the pandemic on the mind-body-spirit (MBS) genre.

“The MBS genre has been doing well for the past many years. Then something like a pandemic happens and we are all shaken to the core. This is such a natural time to reach out for MBS books, for help and guidance in coping with loss, fear and anxiety,” she explains. “Also, this crisis will pass eventually, a vaccine will come and help us. But, I think as human beings, our sense of complacency and the ‘çontrol’ we thought we had over our lives, has been broken in some way. I do believe people are going to lean on MBS books more and more.”

Is it fair to say the pandemic has re-introduced the concept of gratitude to a whole new generation then? Psychologist Shalini notes, “That is difficult to say. For those who have suffered in whatever small or big way, it’s what you choose to focus on. It may not come naturally to many and they may need to be nudged towards it.”

Not a rosy journey

Surely, the journey towards gratitude is not all rosy. While noting that gratitude can really help keep a person going at a time like this, Shalini says that one may need to “tune into that emotion or frame of mind. It works both in a relative sense — looking at how much you have, compared to others and in an absolute sense — looking at your own life and counting the blessings.”

Rukmini notes that “when life is going well, we tend to forget to be in gratitude for all we have. It’s only when you are pounded by some sort of loss that you wake up to what you still have and the heart opens up in gratitude.” She adds that gratitude, like any practice, takes time and effort, but the more you do it, the more natural it becomes to you.”

Talking about her journey, Tuheena explains, “To find something to appreciate every single day could be a task. Not all days are the same. Your heart isn’t full every day and your mood swings could get the better of you.”

For her, the practice has been a way to condition her mind to look at the good, to ponder over happy memories, to process and replay the good bits.

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Published 05 September 2020, 20:28 IST

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