Courtney Traber, LPC-Intern

Supervised by Frank Cohn, LPC-S

6448 E Hwy 290 #e114, Austin, TX 78723

(512) 561-0609, extension 18



               Everyone at some time or another has felt that their life is not quite enough. It’s not surprising! We are constantly flooded with messages of what we ‘should’ have or what we ‘should’ be. Whether it’s finding your soulmate, landing the perfect job, or being able afford the newest and greatest. To up the ante, we now have access to never-ending ammo for negative self-comparisons thanks to the portraits of ‘perfect’ lives often posted to Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter. So, even if we attain the things we believed would lead to satisfaction, we will likely begin our search for the next ‘answer’. This chase is endless and can become exhausting.

               In working with clients, I often hear that their goal in coming to therapy is to be ‘happier’. What does it mean to be happy? Happiness is elusive and abstract. Exploring this question tends to lead to the idea that people actually just want to be satisfied with their lives, and ultimately, themselves. The difficult part is how to get there. It will likely seem an impossible task due to that story we have been told, and have believed, that satisfaction comes from the next ‘thing’. We tell ourselves “if I had [more money, a partner, a better body] then I would be happy”. In fact, these very stories are what feeds our dissatisfaction. So, why do we continue to believe? To replay the story over and over in our minds?

Source: https://www.instagram.com/theawkwardyeti/?hl=en  

The Pessimistic Brain

               Our brains have evolved to depend on what’s termed a “negativity bias” as a means to keep us safe. In the past, paying attention to what we perceived as bad, dangerous, and negative in the world was quite literally an advantage that could save your life. Thankfully, at this point in time many of us do not have to deal with matters of life and death on a daily basis. But our brains continue to try and keep us safe through this bias toward negative, potentially ‘dangerous’ information. This can lead to us expect the worst in others, focus mainly on negative aspects of experiences, and dwell on pessimistic thoughts. As you can imagine, these tendencies can make it very difficult to maintain a positive outlook on life, and especially difficult to experience sustained satisfaction.

               Okay, this all may sound pretty discouraging so far, but here it is, the silver lining! Our brains can change. The mind has the ability to adapt and change continuously throughout our lives. We can actually restructure our physical brains by using our minds to create different, and more helpful mental pathways. It does take more effort and practice than defaulting to the negative, but it is possible and within reach. One of the most promising keys researchers have found to unlocking that elusive door to satisfaction is gratitude.

An Attitude of Gratitude

               Gratitude. So simple, right? Not quite. Remember, this is not our default. You are not alone if you struggle to feel grateful every day, or at all. Life can be hard, and messy. But it’s possible that we may be missing the beauty, joy, peace, and humor within the mess because of this filter we’ve unknowingly been wearing. Gratitude is a practice of taking off that filter, challenging that bias, and seeing our blind spots. And I bet, that once your start to turn your head, and notice, you may find that your life is better than you believe.

               I’m sure you have an idea of what gratitude is; appreciation, thankfulness. That feeling when a friend drops everything and comes to your rescue when you have a flat tire. Or when you have one of those ‘good days’ where every traffic light seems to turn green, your favorite coffee tastes especially wonderful, and the weather is just perfect. You know it when you feel it, right? The trouble is, for most of us this is fleeting. That ‘good’ day could turn ‘bad’ if we come home and have an argument with our partner. Remember, it’s not only easy to forget the good, but we also tend to give more weight to the bad. The type of gratitude that can create lasting satisfaction is a disposition of gratitude. This is the kind of gratitude that we have to cultivate, practice, until eventually it becomes our default.

               Practicing gratitude has been shown to increase overall life satisfaction, improve the quality of relationships, improve sleep, and decrease rates of depression, addiction, and burnout. Regular, consistent gratitude practices have also shown benefits for people experiencing medical challenges and those who have suffered a traumatic event. One study found heart failure patients who kept a gratitude journal for eight weeks were more grateful and also had reduced signs of inflammation afterwards. Several studies found that grateful people experience lower rates of depression and are more resilient following traumatic events. Another study showed that partners who had a series of conversations expressing gratitude to their partner reported more improvements in their personal well-being and in the well-being of their relationship than did partners who had disclosed something personal about themselves (I will provide resources at the end of the article for those who would like to read further).

Source: https://www.instagram.com/bymariandrew/  

               Now, how can you translate this into a functional practice? First off, don’t overwhelm yourself. Research has shown that these benefits can come from incorporating a gratitude practice just 1-3 days per week. I would encourage you to just try out writing 5 to 10 things you’re grateful for before bed. It can be big or small; laughing at a joke, watching a riveting tv show, having someone open a door for you, anything! The key is to really sit with your list, feel the gratitude. You may even want to speak your list aloud, or feel free to journal around each list item. Another practice could be writing a letter to someone you have been meaning to thank, or just to let them know how much you appreciate them. And remember, this takes repetition. If you don’t feel the benefits right away, that is normal! Keep going. You may notice that gradually the list becomes easier to write, it may lengthen, and eventually you may even be making a mental list throughout the day. We have the power to feel satisfied, exactly where we are, exactly as we are, by noticing and reveling in all of the good right in front of us.

Reaching Out

               Although gratitude may be one key to lasting satisfaction, it is not a cure for depression or other mental health struggles. If you feel you are depressed or overwhelmed by anxiety, loneliness, grief, or hopelessness, reach out to a professional. If you need more immediate help or are in crisis, you may want to call a crisis line to speak to a mental health professional immediately.

Mental Health Crisis Resources:

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255

National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-SAFE (7233)

Written by:

               Courtney Traber, M.S., LPC-Intern

               Supervised by Frank Cohn, LPC-S