Thankfulness can help when times are hard
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By Steven Campbell  November 22, 2013 12:00 am

It's easy to feel thankful when life is good. But when the hard times come, can we, or even should we, feel thankful?

A decade’s worth of research on thankfulness by Dr. Robert A. Emmons, Ph.D., the world's leading scientific expert on gratitude (and also a professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis), has shown that when the hard times come, not only can thankfulness help, it is essential. 

In fact, it is precisely during the hard times that we have the most to gain by being thankful. When we have been demoralized, thankfulness can energize. When we have been broken, thankfulness can heal. When we are in despair, it is thankfulness that has the power to bring hope.

Please don’t get me wrong, I am not suggesting thankfulness comes easily or naturally in a crisis. It’s easy to feel thankful for the good things. However, how can you feel thankful when you have lost a job or a home or good health or have taken a devastating hit on your retirement portfolio.

But let’s make a distinction between feeling thankful and being thankful. You and I know we don’t have total control over what we’re feeling.  We cannot just tell ourselves to feel thankful or less depressed or happy. 

Feelings don’t work that way. But we do know now that, psychologically, our feelings come primarily from our beliefs – from the way we look at the world.

In fact, being thankful is a choice we make every day. And when we choose to look at the positive or we choose to be more consistently thankful, our brain actually creates in us a mindset that makes us relatively immune to the gains and losses that flow in and out of our daily lives. (Psychology calls this neuroplasticity.) 

So when disaster strikes, thankfulness can provide a perspective from which we can view life in its entirety and not be overwhelmed by temporary circumstances. Yes, this perspective is hard to achieve – but Dr. Emmon’s research, and the people I have had the privilege to know over the years have proven to me that it is worth the effort.


Remembering the hard times

The hard times can actually refine and deepen our thankfulness if we allow them to show us to not take things for granted. In fact, Thanksgiving was born and grew out of hard times.

The first Thanksgiving took place after nearly half the pilgrims died from a rough winter and year. It became a national holiday in 1863 in the middle of the Civil War and was moved to its current date in the 1930s following the Great Depression.

Why? Well, when times are good, we take prosperity for granted and begin to believe that we are invulnerable. In the hard times though (like the Great Recession which began in 2008), we realize how powerless we really are to control our own destiny. 

When we begin to see that everything we have and everything we have counted on may be taken away, it becomes far harder to take it for granted.

So the hard times can make us more thankful. In fact, research says that thankfulness actually helps us cope with the hard times. 

Choosing to be thankful can actually cultivate a sort of psychological immune system that can cushion us when we fall. There is scientific evidence that grateful people are more resilient to stress, whether minor everyday hassles or major personal upheavals. The contrast between suffering and redemption serves as the basis for one of Dr. Emmon’s tips for practicing gratitude: remember the hard times.

He puts it this way, “Think of the worst times in your life, your sorrows, your losses, your sadness – and then remember that here you are, able to remember them, that you made it through the worst times of your life, you got through the trauma, you got through the trial, you endured the temptation, you survived the bad relationship, you’re making your way out of the dark. Remember the bad things, then look to see where you are now.”

And finally, consider this: 

• If you have food in your refrigerator and a place to sleep, you are in the top 25 percent of the world.

• Since you are reading this, you are more blessed than the 785 million in the world who cannot read or write.

• If you woke with more health than illness, you are more blessed than the one million this week that will not survive.

• And if you have money in the bank, wallet or spare change, you are in the top 8 percent of the world.

We have so much to be thankful for.  

Happy Thanksgiving!


Steven Campbell is the author of "Making Your Mind Magnificent" and conducts "The Winners Circle" every two months at Sonoma Mountain Village in RP. He can be contacted at 480-5007 or For more information, go to

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