Consciously Cultivating a Practice of Gratitude

Contributed by: Nikki Rollo, LMFT, National Director, Reasons Eating Disorder Center

connect-20333_640Gratitude and thankfulness get a lot of attention this time of year. We see these words popping up on social media, splashed across shopping center signs encouraging us to buy gifts, and used as sitcoms themes during the holiday season.

While the holidays are a good reminder for us to think about those things for which we are thankful, gratitude is actually a complex, multidimensional construct.

Taking a Less Positive Look to Cope

As humans, experiencing physical and emotional pain and suffering is a part of life. In response to this, it is often much more natural and perhaps even easier to inhabit a negative space and take on a less than positive outlook on life and the burdens that come with it.

It certainly takes more conscious effort to not only recognize the good amidst pain and suffering, but to actively seek it out. Gratitude as a consciously cultivated practice helps us do that very thing.

What’s all the hype about Gratitude?

Various research studies have demonstrated that awareness and expression of gratitude affect our state of well-being and mental health, and is thus quite deserving of our attention beyond just the two months of the holiday season (Hlava and Elfers, 2013; Lin and Yeh, 2013).

Researchers on gratitude, Emmons and Stern (2013) call gratitude “one of life’s most vitalizing ingredients” (p. 846). It:

  • Lowers blood pressure
  • Improves immune system functioning
  • Promotes happiness
  • Reduces lifetime risk for depression, anxiety, and substance abuse

With all of these benefits calling attention to the importance of a practice of gratitude, let’s explore how to define it, how we cultivate it in order to assist in the journey of recovery from an eating disorder and ultimately how it might become a way of being.

What is Gratitude?

heart-462873_640Gratitude is a more than just a seasonal emotion and actually has at its core a multiplicity of meanings.

While in no particular order, there are three definitions of gratitude that are important to note, with the first being a psychological disposition, the second a relational experience and the third a universal spiritual truth.

  1. The psychological or intrapersonal aspect of gratitude is defined as a subjective feeling of appreciation for life and the good things that are in it. This can be feelings of joy, enthusiasm, love, and happiness or contentment resulting from seeing the extraordinary value in simply being alive.

  3. A reciprocal experience and a positive feeling when one receives some kind of benefit from another human being usually identify the relational or interpersonal aspect of gratitude. This could come in the form of a favor, but most often we experience this feeling when we feel a sense of belonging, connection, intimacy, or social support.

  5. The spiritual principle of gratitude is a combination of the intra and interpersonal aspects and has as its ultimate goal, “to reflect back” goodness by actively looking for ways to affirm life in others, not for anything in return but simply from the recognition that we are all connected as human beings.

Healing Power of Gratitude

As humans we try to avoid pain and obtain pleasure. In therapy, especially in therapy for recovery from an eating disorder, we learn health coping skills and tools for dealing with the challenges of life in order to have an alternative to coping without engaging in eating disorder behaviors.

This might come as a surprise, but cultivating a practice of gratitude is one of those skills for increasing one’s sense of well-being in life and functions in the service of healing at a deep soul level, both with ourselves and our relationship with the world around us.

The Effects of Gratitude

beach-193786_640Here are some of the healing effects of gratitude as found by researchers Emmons and Stern (2013) and Hlava and Effers (2013):

  • Gratitude is inherently relational so healing arises when we feel recognized, affirmed, and valued and ultimately strengthened to do what was once considered too frightening.
  • Contrast is an important part of healing in connection with gratitude. When we feel pain, the redemption of a healing experience is accompanied by relief and gratitude-for example the entrance of a mild spring after a cold harsh winter.
  • Healing comes with the power of the reciprocity of gratitude and giving the gift of an openness of yourself and then receiving that back from others- particularly relevant in the group setting.
  • Gratitude has protective factors from destructive impulses like envy, resentment, greed, and bitterness
  • Gratitude is a sustainable approach to life that does not rely on objective life experiences being positive, but is an internal attitude in the face of adversity. Perhaps in the way a friend came along side you when you were hurting, or the companion of an animal, or simply the comfort of a warm blanket or cup of hot tea.

More than Words…Bringing it into the Body

While gratitude is a state of mind, there are specific exercises for conscious cultivation of gratitude that bring it into the body and make it come alive.

  • Pay Attention: Noticing and become aware of things we might normally take for granted like the wind on your skin, the smell of fresh baked bread, a warm blanket, a smile from a friend etc…
  • Writing: Start a daily gratitude journal, reflecting on the benefits you have received in life- simply every day pleasures (warm tea, cool breeze), people in one’s life, personal strength or talent, gestures of kindness from others.
  • Mindfulness: Practice a daily meditation on gratitude- how I have given, how I have received, or something simple like “breathing in, I accept loving kindness from myself and breathing out, I release bitterness and resentment”
  • Bring it in the Body: Where do I feel not only gratitude, but the effect of the gratitude cultivation practice in my body? Does it have an image? Color? Sensation? Do I feel more connected to myself? To others? To something spiritual?

Actively and consciously cultivating gratitude in your life has the potential to bring deep healing to one’s sense of self and place in the world and in relationship to others while increasing over-all well-being and helping to increase positive emotions.

Community Discussion – Share your thoughts here!

What are you grateful for today? How does being grateful impact you?


  1. Emmons, R. A., & Stern, R. (2013). Gratitude as a Psychotherapeutic Intervention. Journal Of Clinical Psychology, 69(8), 846-855.
  2. Hlava, P., & Elfers, J. (2014). The Lived Experience of Gratitude. Journal Of Humanistic Psychology, 54(4), 434-455.
  3. Lin, C., & Yeh, Y. (2014). How Gratitude Influences Well-Being: A Structural Equation Modeling Approach. Social Indicators Research, 118(1), 205-217.

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

Last Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern on December 13th, 2014
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