Gratitude and mental health

Plenty of scientific studies show us that feeling gratitude is good for our mood and overall wellbeing. Pausing to appreciate the good things in our life can be a simple but powerful act of self-care, and an antidote to feelings of dissatisfaction and hopelessness.

If you’re struggling with your mental health, feeling gratitude can be easier said than done. If you’re going through the worst time in your life, or struggling to find a reason to get out of bed, having someone tell you to ‘be grateful’ can feel irritating and insensitive. And that’s ok. Remember, gratitude is not about dismissing your feelings, or accepting injustice. It is about noticing and giving our attention to the things that inspire positive feelings.  

[Allah says] “If you are grateful, I will give you more.” – Qur’an 14:7

Gratitude is the key to contentment 

Gratitude can help us find acceptance in situations of loss and heartache.  

When we’re always focused on the things we’re missing, we can lose our enjoyment of the things we have.

Gratitude invites us to witness the present moment, instead of getting lost in the past or the future. 

Although gratitude comes naturally to most of us, it’s still something we can all work on – like a skill, it takes effort and practice.

Think about it this way; if you do something regularly enough it becomes a habit. If you regularly look for the positives, this will become your habit. Feelings of optimism and contentment will accompany you in life. If you regularly complain about the things you don’t have but long for, this will become your habit. Feelings of incompleteness and dissatisfaction will accompany you in life. After all, If a person is not fully able to appreciate what they have now, how will they be able to appreciate the things they want when they get them? 

Gratitude does not mean ‘put up and shut up because other people have it worse’. Equally, wanting better for yourself, or having ambitions, is not wrong or ungrateful. 

Being grateful means appreciating and enjoying our blessings fully, regardless of the situation we’re in. 

“I used to think happiness is based on things; like winning the lottery, being good-looking, having a cool job, going on fancy holidays… But some of the most miserable people I know are the ones who look like they have it all.” 

“If you always think happiness is around the corner, you’re waiting for it to happen to you. No one can hand you happiness. Happiness is made up of a hundred little things. You can experience it right now. I wish I’d figured that out sooner.” 

“If you have depression, you can still enjoy eating an orange. Look for the little moments, they’re right in front of you.” 

“The way I see it, without the downs you can’t enjoy the ups. It’s part of life. Took me a long time to accept that, but practising gratitude helped me find that perspective.”

“Every disaster taught me a huge lesson. Every heartbreak brought me closer to Allah. The more you try to find things to be grateful for, the more you see blessings in everything.” 

Gratitude increases feelings of self-love

We all have hang-ups and insecurities. And we can all be guilty of comparing ourselves physically and materially to others – that’s normal. The important thing is to recognise what effect this behaviour is having on us, and find ways to accept that each of us faces different challenges and enjoys different blessings.

The thing you’re insecure about is also a thing someone loves about you – just because it is a part of you.  

Facing up to ingratitude

Struggling with your mental health doesn’t mean you are an ungrateful or ‘bad’ person. We can recognise that we have ‘so much to be grateful for’ and still struggle to feel good – it’s nothing to feel guilty or ashamed about. In fact, mental health difficulties are usually a sign that there are other, deeper things going on with us that need our attention. That said, consistent patterns of ingratitude can cause serious personal and spiritual problems. 

It’s always a good idea to make space to check in with yourself about how you are manifesting gratitude and ingratitude. 

If you enjoy good health, gratitude might look like eating healthy, but ingratitude might look like abusing your body. If you receive a windfall, gratitude might look like giving a portion to charity and spending wisely, but ingratitude might look like being stingy and spending it on things that bring no benefit. If your du’a is answered, gratitude might look like increasing worship and saying thank you to Allah in prayer, but ingratitude might look like telling yourself it’s just a coincidence, or it was bound to happen anyway. 

“And Allah sets forth the example of a society which was safe and at ease, receiving its provision in abundance from all directions. But its people met Allah’s favours with ingratitude, so Allah made them taste the clutches of hunger and fear for their misdeeds.” — Qur’an 16:112

The logic of gratitude

Imagine you’re always going out of your way to help someone. But this person never says thank you, and never appreciates your effort. Even worse, they constantly compare you to someone who does things better, and moan about the things that you don’t do for them, even though there are good reasons why you don’t do those things. How would you feel about this person? Is there any point in giving that person even more of your time and effort? No matter what you do, they’re never going to be happy. 

Just as Allah increases us in bounty and blessings when we’re grateful, so can Allah remove our blessings when we are ungrateful. The point is not to fake happiness and suffer in silence, lying to yourself is a recipe for trouble. But simply be mindful of your attitudes and behaviour so that you can intentionally choose to see the blessings and opportunities strewn across your path as well as the challenges.

“Every action has a reaction. If you’re not being treated well, you’re not going to feel good. It’s just a fact. You didn’t choose it, you don’t want it, and it’s not ok. Your situation sucks, not you. I’d say don’t beat yourself up for having feelings. You’re not a bad person.”

You could try these exercises to see if they make a difference to how you’re feeling.

Exercise 1:

Grab something to take notes with. Set a timer for 5 minutes and use that time to list out everything you’re grateful for – big and small. Don’t overthink it, just list as many things as you can. For example:

My socks keeping my feet warm, my feet!, the kind stranger who helped me in the supermarket, my eyes, my hands, my phone, my blanket, my imagination, my brain, my smile, my cat, my teeth, my books, my friend’s Netflix password, my breakfast, my ability to read…   

When your five minutes is over, read through your list.

Take some time to look at each individual item you listed and try imagining how different your life would be if you didn’t have that thing in your life.

You could keep this list and re-read it when you’re feeling overwhelmed.

Another alternative is to use prayer beads, if you have any, to count 100 things instead of writing. 

“With every hardship there is ease.” –  Qur’an 94:5

Exercise 2:

  1. Find a quiet moment. Take a few deep breaths. It might help you to close your eyes. You might like to recite Surah al-Fatiha first if you know it. 
  2. Think of something in your life that brings you joy – even if it’s something really small, like the warm sun on your face, or a time someone made you laugh.
  3. Keep focusing on it. Let a feeling of gratitude wash over you.
  4. It’s ok if other negative thoughts start to creep in. Just notice those thoughts and bring your attention calmly back to that feeling of gratitude.

Exercise 3: 

Before bed, or first thing in the morning, write down:

  • three things you hope to achieve over the coming day
  • three things that happened that day/day before that you are grateful for

Do this consistently every day for at least two weeks. 

After two weeks, read back over everything you have written.

Take some time to reflect on how this exercise makes you feel and if you enjoyed it, keep going!

“And if Allah had extended [excessively] provision for His servants, they would have committed tyranny throughout the earth. But He sends [it] down in an amount which He wills. Indeed He is, of His servants, Acquainted and Seeing.” — Qur’an  42:27

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Slow beautiful recitation of Surah Al Fatiha