How’s Your Gratitude Attitude? Get Out Your “Happy List!”

“My life stinks. Nobody deserves the life I’ve got.”  My teenage client sat there on the couch, eyes downcast, his face curled up in a scowl, and there was enough negativity in the room to drown us both.  He was, if nothing else, direct and to the point.

I asked him to explain himself, and he quickly pointed to academic frustrations, conflict with peers, and uncaring parents.  The further we proceeded the gloomier the picture became to him:  the canvas of life was etched in blacks and grays.  The further we proceeded, the clearer the picture became to me:  he funneled everything through a negative filter.

So I suggested we change the filter.  If, as he described it, his life was really so awful, I wanted to know how he’d like it to be different.  I wanted to know what made him happy.

We began our list slowly; my young client was having a hard time shifting out of his gloomy mode.  However, when I informed him that the record for the longest ‘happy list” was 47 items, he picked up momentum, stopping only after generating 63 items.  Among these were: “Having mom scratch my back…getting a compliment from Dad…12 noon on Sunday – that’s when church gets out…and when a cute girls says ‘hi’ to me.”  By now the boy was exerting considerable positive energy and he was (gasp!) smiling.

I pointed out that we had but scratched the surface, that there were many things he takes for granted that make him happy.  I pointed out his good health, his ability to speak and read, a warm coat on a cold day, and Mom’s rice crispy treats; he added that he also liked the first day of summer vacation, his parents getting along with each other, and surprises (like when you reach in your jacket and find a piece of candy you’d forgotten about).  Soon we had 100 items…we absolutely trashed the old record by a mile!

As we gazed at the board full of scribbling, I erased “What makes you happy” and replaced it with “Counting my blessings.”  I noted that, were anyone to walk in the room at that moment and see the list of good things in his life, they’d probably say, “I’ll take one of those lives, please.”

Looking on the bright side of life isn’t always easy, but then neither is living your life in a rut of negativity.  There are those of us who insist on painting life with a broad brush of complaining, self-pity, excuses, and accusations.  Sometimes the root of this is depression; other times it stems from difficult circumstances; some people’s negativity has become a way of life, borne out of years of habit; others use it to avoid intimacy and closeness with others.  Some people are negative simply because it provides justification for the way they live their lives.  It seems easier to them than taking responsibility and changing.

Each individual’s mental health is based largely on his perspective; perception is, as they say, reality.  While we cannot change our past, we can change our perception of it; though we can’t control all aspects of our present, we can control how we view it; granted, we don’t know our future, but we can anticipate and expect that things will go well.  Our own prophecies (expectations), no matter how small, do seem to fulfill themselves, for good or bad.

So count your many blessings.  Cultivate an attitude of gratitude.  Look on the bright side of life.  Sustain positive emotion by acknowledging the bounty you have rather than lamenting that everything isn’t perfect.  If offered a doughnut, resist complaining that someone has removed the middle.  Remember the Arabian proverb:  “I had no shoes and complained – until I met a man who had no feet.”

The fact is, my teenage client is probably right:  “Nobody deserves the life I’ve got.”  We’ve all got it much too good.  Consider living (or dying) in Honduras; consider starving in Africa; consider that in a worldwide context, our lifestyle is the exception rather than the rule.

You have the power to write your own story, to produce a robust view of the good life…or a debilitating, gloomy picture.  Contemplate your own “happy list” and cultivate an attitude of gratitude.  Your mental health depends on it.

 

Steven M. Gentry, PhD., is a Child & Family Psychologist and the Executive Director of
Psychological Assessment & Treatment Specialists in American Fork, Utah