The Benefits of Practicing Gratitude


4 min read

Over the past month I’ve woken up almost every day feeling unusually fatigued and tired, no matter how much sleep I get. I haven’t had a fever, sore throat, or lost my appetite, so I ruled out the flu and figured that eventually this fatigue would go away.

When it didn’t go away, I decided to visit my family doctor last week and get some blood work done. This morning the doctor called and said I have a case of mono, which can last anywhere from a couple weeks up to two months or longer. 

While it sucks to have mono, I’m relieved it isn’t something worse.

In the weeks leading up to the doctor’s visit, I kept trying to self-diagnosis myself (always a bad idea) by looking up my symptoms online. Over and over again, I’d read on various sites that persistent fatigue could be early signs of cancer or other serious medical issues. The more I read, the more I freaked myself out.

I couldn’t help but think of the worst-case scenarios in my head and wonder to myself whether or not I might have a serious illness that could lead to an early death. I feel ridiculous even typing out that previous sentence, but it’s a serious thought that ran through my head.

Now that I know I have mono and that it’s something that will eventually go away over time, I’m incredibly relieved. Moreso, I’m actually grateful for this experience because it has made me realize just how lucky I am to have been born in perfect health and to have had no prior experience with serious illnesses.

This brings up an interesting point: sometimes you need to have something taken from you (like your health) temporarily to realize just how lucky and blessed you are.

Lacking Gratitude

Personally, I don’t often practice gratitude when everything is going well. 

When I wake up in perfect health feeling well-rested, I don’t feel particularly grateful. I don’t take a moment to consider all of the people out there struggling with real medical problems like cancer or other debilitating diseases.

Or when I turn on my faucet, I don’t feel lucky to have running water. I don’t think about how hard it would be to live somewhere where I would have to walk several miles to gain access to clean water.

Financially, I rarely think about how fortunate I am that I don’t have to worry about making my monthly rent, car, or internet payment.

And when I hang out with friends and family, I rarely practice gratitude for the fact that they’re all in perfect health and that I’m so lucky to have a reliable social network.

When things are running smoothly with my personal health, my living circumstances, my finances, and my relationships, I don’t practice gratitude like I should.

When I do practice gratitude, though, I notice that I am able to slow down and enjoy all of the good things around me. I’m able to see just how blessed I am and how good life really is.

Although I don’t practice gratitude as much as I should, I have found one practice particularly helpful in doing so: negative visualization.

What is Negative Visualization?

Negative visualization is the practice of visualizing negative situations like the death of family members, the loss of material possessions, and the onset of serious health problems.

By imagining these awful situations and feeling the negative emotions associated with them, it becomes much easier to be grateful for the fact that none of them have taken place.

Imagine what it would be like if your mom, dad, sister, or bother got into a tragic car accident and passed away. Feel the sense of sadness that brings. Sit with that sadness for a moment. Really feel that emotion. Then come back to reality. Now feel how grateful you are that those people are still alive and that you still have time to spend time with them and make more memories with them.

Or imagine that your house burned down in a fire. Feel the stress, anger, and sadness of that situation. Then come back to reality. Now feel how grateful you are to still have a home.

Or imagine what it would be like to get into a serious accident and become paralyzed. Feel that sadness and frustration. Then come back to reality and notice how grateful you are to be in good health.

The Benefits of Negative Visualization

In A Guide to the Good Life, William B. Irvine explains the benefits of negative visualization:

“Negative visualization, in other words, teaches us to embrace whatever life we happen to be living and to extract every bit of delight we can from it. But it simultaneously teaches us to prepare ourselves for changes that will deprive us of the things that delight us. It teaches us, in other words, to enjoy what we have without clinging to it.”

Through imagining how much worse things could be, we’re able to truly enjoy how good things are in the present. By imagining what it would be like to lose family members, a job, our health, or material possessions, we’re able to enjoy them so much more when we still have them. This helps us avoid taking things for granted.

At the same time, by imagining negative situations we’re able to brace ourselves for misfortune before it strikes. We’re able to mentally prepare for worst-case scenarios and not be completely blindsided by them.

It’s All About Perspective

It’s a good idea to take a step back every once in a while and put my so-called “problems” in life in perspective. 

On a regular basis my “problems” might include:

  • I have a pointless meeting at work I have to sit through
  • I get stuck in traffic on my way home from work
  • The WiFi at Starbucks stops working unexpectedly
  • My air conditioning unit breaks
  • I have to get a new tire put on my car

I am incredibly blessed to be able to consider these things “problems.”

There are millions of people who struggle on a daily basis to ensure they have enough food, water, shelter, and clothing just to survive on a daily basis.

To a less extreme extent, there are people within the U.S. who grow up in unfortunate living situations who have to struggle and work much harder than me to make a living.

Compared to a huge majority of people on earth, my “problems” aren’t really problems at all.

Conclusion

Dealing with mono sucks. But in the grand scheme of things, it’s a pretty small problem to have. It has made me realize that things could be a lot worse. This diagnosis has helped remind me just how amazing nearly every other part of my life is and how lucky I truly am.


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