How an attitude of gratitude can turn your life around

Updated - December 02, 2019 12:48 pm IST

Published - December 02, 2019 12:47 pm IST

Let us look at what it takes to be gracious even in the darkest of times

Thank you word cloud as speech bubble

The act of being grateful has been drilled into Indians much before motivational posters and Live Love Laugh throw pillows came around. The one response we can bet on, when recounting any sort of trauma, is advice to be strong and thankful it wasn’t worse. All around us, we are bombarded with stories of everyday people showing courage and gratitude, and encouraging others to do the same.

Cancer conqueror Neerja Malik designed her life around this. “When I first got the diagnosis, I went into auto-pilot mode. It hit me only after we reached home, and my husband had to cancel lunch with our friends,” says Neerja. That was 1998. Since then, she has had another bout of cancer, conquered both, written two books and counselled several others — some from the recovery room of a hospital. Throughout, she has remained optimistic, with only kind words for what life brought to her.


Young woman showing her heartfelt gratitude and thanks clasping her hands to her heart with a pleased smile


“I am grateful that God planned my life in a way that I was equipped to handle. I have experienced broken bones, miscarriages and cancer, but I was also blessed with strong parents, two children — my reason for survival — a good education and a gift of the gab that helps me help others in the same boat,” she says.

Neerja’s joie de vivre over the phone is reminiscent of Chennai-based restaurateur Sandesh Reddy. Sandesh had two failed restaurants before he hit gold with the now-popular Sandy’s Chocolate Laboratory. He recently took over French Loaf as well, but in between were a string of experiments, and not all worked out. “There have been days when I didn’t know if I would make rent, or pay salaries…” he says.

Even then, his philosophy of taking risks never changed. His failures, he says, only showed him what a reliable support system he had. “I don’t have a single regret. And for that I’m grateful to my wife, my childhood friends… people who would point me in the right direction, without any filters.”


What we instinctively feel, and what most of our religions teach us — that there is good in being grateful — has backing in science. “Gratitude generates feel-good emotions which are essential for brain health and well-being,” says Kolkata-based psychologist Mansi Poddar.

She quotes a 2003 study, Counting Blessings vs Burdens that required patients to keep a gratitude journal: “Sixteen per cent of the subjects reported reduced symptoms, and 10% of subjects reported a decrease in pain. It also showed that subjects were more willing to exercise, and were far more motivated in their recovery.”

Similar studies in people with hypertension revealed that expressing gratitude showed a significant decrease in their systolic blood pressure.

Can happiness be tiring?

But try telling a person in their lowest phase, that they should hold their heads high. Try telling that to a woman who has lost her twin infants. Try telling that to Cynthia John.

Cynthia lost her first two babies, both premature, before they turned one. “I can never look back and show gratitude. I will always carry that grief,” she says. Well-meaning family members either advised her on what she could have done differently, or tried consoling her saying she would have other children. “But that’s not how a mother feels,” she says.

However, what she did with this grief was in her control. “Sometimes you can’t rely on your family and friends for moving on. You have to refocus yourself,” she says, adding that she gave up freelancing for a full-time job in order to distract herself from it.

Mansi confirms that forcing positivity could be toxic. “We can’t manufacture happiness,” she says. “In fact, its constant pursuit makes us unhappy. A gratitude practice is a tool, and like all tools it needs to be used correctly. You can’t start forcing gratitude to arise when in the depth of grief. Self compassion is key here.”

Anger, on the other hand, is a movement emotion, she says. “It alerts us to something that’s occurred which we identify as unjust or threatening to us. If handled well, anger can lead us toward what we value and cherish.”

But Japneet Kaur could not even bring herself to be angry. The Noida-based psychologist faced sexual abuse at the hands of her family’s domestic help since she was nine, until she turned 14, when she mustered the courage to tell her parents about it.

“Before I consulted a professional, who told me I was showing signs of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, it was almost like I was pressuring myself to feel angry. I wanted to feel angry and I wanted to wish bad things upon him but I never could… I would always think of some justification for his act,” she recalls. This was one of the things that she worked on with her psychologist: accepting her emotions for what they were.

Though traumatised then, Japneet claims she can still see the silver lining. For many years, she feared her experiences would make her an inefficient psychologist. “But my professor made me see the other side of the coin. She told me how I would be able to empathise better,” she says.

People with trauma history and emotional dysregulation have now become her forte; she feels she understands better what would comfort them. “It all depends on what part of the situation we want to focus on. It took me time to understand my ill experience, but when I did, it became my biggest strength,” she says.

Looking back today, Cynthia too chooses to remember how her first pregnancy positively affected her second. “I was advised bed rest throughout, and I made use of this time by writing more than I had ever written. I finished my 10th book at eight in the night, right before being wheeled into the delivery room,” she laughs. Soon she was blessed with a son and a daughter, now aged 11 and eight.

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