Essays & Stories


A Garden of Gratitude: How to Cultivate Thankfulness Amidst Hard Times

existential first aid Nov 21, 2023


I’m not sure who decided that fall should be synonymous with gratitude. I mean, sure, there’s Thanksgiving—the national holiday of giving thanks. And despite its ungracious origins, many families, including my own, enjoy the tradition of gathering and counting our blessings. But the whole gratitude show seems to extend outward from Thanksgiving, dominating the holidays like a bossy poster child. 

But what if you don’t feel particularly happy? What if you’re going through a hard time, or the people you love aren’t healthy enough to gather? What if the person you loved most isn’t here anymore? 

And has anyone else noticed that this whole  ‘season of gratitude’ kicks off with the dying of plants and 4pm sunsets? Like pull up your bootstraps, boys — it's time to muster up some gratitude amidst this special season of darkness and bleakness. 

Thankfully (see what I did there), we don’t have to drown in our own whine. And no matter how crummy you feel, if you read on, I promise to show you why you are better off – that we are better off – when we notice the rose hip and the thorn. 


Watch for Tailwinds


So the first part of this piece was rather complain-y. And there’s a reason for that. 

According to Cornell professor and psychologist Tom Gilovich, my resentments keep me focused on what he calls the ‘headwinds’ of my experience. The headwinds are the experiences that make life harder and challenge us. And because we’re human, of course they also distract us—they’re the things we need to climb over to get where we want to go. 

But Gilovich, who’s spent his career researching gratitude, has discovered that we can nurture the rewards of gratitude when we focus on the ‘tailwinds.’ Tailwinds are the elements of our life that make life better, easier, and more meaningful. It’s a lot more than simply counting your blessings. According to Gilovich, it’s a  cognitive habit, a way of thinking that challenges us to see the whole picture—headwinds and all. 


The Science of Gratitude 


There’s a lot more to the benefits of gratitude beyond developing your mind bending skills. Gratitude actually improves your well-being and is closely associated with more happiness. In one study, those who practiced gratitude and appreciation showed a reduction in cortisol, a stress biomarker. 

Another study asked one group to write a few sentences of appreciation each week and another to log instances of inconveniences and complaints. After 10 weeks, the gratitude group showed greater signs of optimism, better exercise habits, and had fewer visits to the doctor. 

The science of gratitude has also shown positive effects on the physical body, including better recall, deeper resilience, greater calm, a boosted immune system, and more. Something else that’s really cool about gratitude is that it actually helps us embrace those hard times and integrate them into our lives. In other words, thankfulness contributes to wisdom. 


Do you need a light? 


Now you don’t have to do it, of course. You could stay focused on challenges, obstacles, and heartaches. I get it. I have lived with chronic heartache for the last several years, as I’ve experienced the lows and lows of my oldest son’s addiction. There are days when despair and misfortune feel all-consuming. But I would be lying if I said the hardest days—every single one—have not included glimmers of gratitude. From the caring medical staff, to the unfailing support of my husband, to the love of his brothers, to the soft sheets on my bed, the sweetness of my dog, and the supplements in my cabinet–even the darkest days have been colored in with gorgeous sun breaks. 

That’s why I really believe in this whole tailwind concept. I also believe in the message behind the classic 1977 Coca Cola commercial that shows a crowd of beautiful people lighting one another’s candle, one flame at a time. If you will permit me, I would love to light your candle. I simply ask that you pass it on. 


Your Own Gratitude Garden 


Regardless of your age and stage of life—much less the season of darkness that happens every fall and winter— most of us could benefit from a lighter, less-stressful, and more meaningful existence. Here are a few tips to help you cultivate more gratitude based on the wealth of research on this virtue: 

  • Gilovich asks us to consider the question ‘what am I missing’? Here’s how it works. As you become consumed by your headwinds (obstacles, challenges, pain), ask yourself ‘what else’ is there? The ‘what else’ could be the support of your family or the food in your fridge. It could be your dog laying at your feet. Train your brain to notice the ‘what else’ – and maybe even write them down as a reminder. 
  • Journaling has long been valued in the gratitude sphere. Try the ‘gratitude experiment’ in the one study that split tested the two groups. Simply write down a list of things you’re thankful for that happened recently. You could do it by the week or by the day. 
  • Tell someone you’re grateful. If you’re not practiced in words of affirmation, you’re in luck. In Gilovich’s findings, people don’t actually care about the words themselves but it’s the experience that sticks with them. You can put your words in the mail or send them as a text. When you make giving thanks a habit, the benefits are like a boomerang that does good work on the way out and on the way back in. BONUS FEELS: You never know who needs those words of affirmation or who feels loved best from positive words. Give freely and when your words land, you’ll know it. Words of affirmation folks will tear up or write back, and that’s when you’ll know just how powerful a practice it can be. 


Shine Bright like a Diamond


“You’re amazing!” and “You worked so hard!” and “Thank you for showing up!” These are all words that I encourage you to say to yourself. Yes, I mean you. Give thanks for yourself and how much you try and love and fail and grow and learn and give. You’re a very important person too – and I hope you will remember your significance and how much you matter daily. 

Thank you for being part of my world—and for reading my words. I wrote them for you. 

About Victoria Payne

Victoria is a writer, speaker, co-founder of Mission Flow, and the creator of the Naked Librarian. Her work explores health and happiness, personal and professional development, and the power of knowing and telling your own story.