Reflections on Gratitude, Healing, and Privilege

It’s Thanksgiving, a holiday with controversial roots, marinated in colonialism and violence.

On the flip side, today has me reflecting on gratitude and how gratitude helps change the brain, heal trauma, and even fight capitalism.

Earlier this year, I went through something traumatic in my personal life, and the trauma was multiplied by the pandemic. I was willing to do anything to feel okay. Because of that, I sought out a support system, and someone in my new support system urged me to make gratitude lists.

At first, I was very turned off by the idea. To me, gratitude lists felt like the “psychology tool” equivalent of a “live, laugh, love” sign.

However, I love data and psychology, so I was drawn to the idea that gratitude changes your brain. Saying “thank you” to others, finding things to be grateful for, and appreciating qualities in others genuinely improves people’s quality of life.

The science of it (the affect on hormones like dopamine and serotonin, and how gratitude affects the nervous system) is in the second link below.

Gratefulness wheel!

Some musings on gratitude:

  • Sometimes people who grew up in chaos (e.g. having parents who are addicted to substances like alcohol or drugs or processes like work, sex, gambling or even anger) learn to thrive off of negative feelings. Our brains love repetitive patterns. Gratitude can help the brain get hooked on positive emotions.
  • For people who seek out spikes of “happy hormones” from external sources (Instagram Likes, anyone?), gratitude helps our bodies take that joy-making process in-house. This makes me think of, “Happiness is an inside job”
  • Gratitude fights toxic capitalism by helping us take inventory of what we have before searching for more. While in a state of gratitude, additional desires come from a place of abundance, not scarcity or suffering.
  • Words of gratitude should be used with care. For instance, other people’s misfortunes do not exist to become inspiration p*rn. Also, when trying to help a loved one, saying “at least you don’t–” or “be thankful that–” are not helpful ways to acknowledge their pain.
  • It’s hard to write about gratitude without acknowledging privilege. I have a lot of privilege (white, middle class, cisgender-passing, and educated.) I have never been in a place in my life where I couldn’t get my basic needs met. I imagine that in these situations, gratitude does help, but I’m not going to make a statement like “Everyone should be making gratitude lists.” That is out of my lane; I just know that gratitude is helpful to me.
  • Gratitude lists can look different for different people. The writer of the first article below says she asks herself every day “What did I do today that ‘future me’ will thank me for?” I love this because it shows each day as a way to nurture future versions of yourself.

Today I am in a group chat where we share our gratitudes every day. I enjoy reading others’ and they often spark fun conversations.

I have noticed that mine are similar from day to day, which for me means that I am building a life full of blessings.


How a Twist on Gratitude Journaling Helped My Recovery

The Neuroscience of Gratitude and How it Affects Anxiety and Grief