• T. Kearny Vertner, III

Practicing Gratitude

When the tough times hit, being grateful for what you have can empower you and help pull you through.

Found in my neighborhood. I'm grateful I'm not this guy.

This concept is from the U.S. Air Force's "Comprehensive Airmen Fitness" resiliency program. My examples and uses are my own.


On Monday, 26 October, we experienced a crazy ice storm in our area in Oklahoma. Between the freezing rain and sleet, a thick layer of ice formed on nearly everything, but especially on trees and power lines. The consequences were dire: over 300,000 lost power throughout the storm as tree branches were pulled down by hundreds of pounds of ice and collapsed on power lines already struggling under their own icy burden. Accidents were widespread as people tried to navigate roads littered with fallen branches and handle intersections without working traffic lights.


I had every intention of enjoying my staycation away from work this week. Extra time to work out, write, play video games, and watch a few movies. By Tuesday, our power went out, and my chance to recharge my personal batteries became a scramble for opportunities to recharge my cellphone batteries. At first, family and I were frustrated. We love our personal electronics as much as anyone, and I started hearing the cacophonous chorus of "I'm bored" from each of my three internet-starved daughters. I decided that this was an excellent time to remind ourselves how grateful we were for what we had.

  1. Our home is well-insulated and equipped with a natural gas fireplace; while we needed to break out the fleeces, we never froze.

  2. Our home also has a natural gas stove, so we could continue to cook.

  3. My wife had recently purchased a bunch of extra candles and some extra long-lasting LED flashlights.

As a team, we went into full-on family mode! We played a LOT of board games, did some extra house cleaning, and had some great discussions that lasted well into the night. We also spent a lot of time coming up with creative solutions to new challenges. For instance, while the stove used gas, the igniter used electricity. The solution? Hold a lit kitchen torch (which is used for everything except making fancy foods) next to the burner before opening the gas valve. While it wasn't ideal, we made it work, and gratitude was the centerpiece of our modest successes.

The trees did not fare well under the weight of the ice.

Gratitude


What do I mean by gratitude? In terms of resilience skills, this one is all about purposefully exchanging self-pity for feeling grateful. Psychologists have repeatedly found health benefits to looking for things to be grateful for, from improved physical health, mental well-being, sleep, self-esteem, and - of course - the ability to cope with stress.


As I previously discussed, our brains are extremely good at claws, fangs, and predatory intent. This instinctive focus on the negative things in life can be critical to helping us survive clear dangers, but it can also be disruptive when it runs unchecked. As a result of our knowledge of all of the dangerous and negative things, we can sink into a cycle of self-pity, anxiety, and depression, badly-damaging our ability to cope with the stress of a relatively danger-free daily life.


It's on each of us to aggressively challenge those instincts!


How to Practice


Like any skill, we shouldn't practice it only when we need it. The skill of feeling gratitude is one we should strive to practice every day, even on days where everything has gone really well. In fact, I would argue that the good days are the best times to practice your gratitude skills; if you play a game on easy mode a few times, the more challenging modes don't seem so daunting. How are we going to practice it? It's easy and corny: Start a gratitude journal.


My challenge to you, dear reader, is to write down three things you're grateful for every day and think about how they made you feel. You can do it any time, though right before bed has other proven effects on your sleep quality. They don't have to be elaborate or complicated. They might be as simple as "I'm grateful for that person that held the door for me. It made me feel cared for." As much as possible, avoid the temptation to go for the big obvious ones, like "I'm grateful to food on my table, clothes on my back, and a roof over my head." While those are good (if you're genuine), seeking novel things will have a more significant impact. Your goal is to slowly shift your mind from seeking out all of the negative things that can hurt you and instead get it to seek positive things that are helping you.


A journal is an awesome tool to help you practice, but it's hardly the only tool. Another way you can practice gratitude is to seek opportunities to encourage it in your family, friends, and teammates at work. Weave the question, "what is something that has happened in the last 24 hours that you're grateful for?" into your family dinner, lunch dates, meetings, etc. It's regularly a topic at my family's dinner table.


Conclusion


While some recent weather threw some stress at my family and sidetracked my leave plans, we emerged stronger and happier as a result. Our ability to show gratitude for all that we had helped keep us from dwelling on what we lacked. While some might consider gratitude as an inherent trait, the reality is that it is a skill that should be practiced. Starting a gratitude journal or starting discussions on gratitude may seem a little corny at first, but building this skill on good days pays massive dividends on the bad day


So... what are you grateful for?

I'm grateful I could enjoy this view of my icy back yard from a warm home.

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© 2020 by T. Kearny Vertner, III. These are my views and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of the Department of Defense or its components. Proudly created with Wix.com