Within the last few years there has been a plethora of information about the importance of gratitude in shaping one’s mental health and improving one’s outlook on life. The book “Simple Abundance: A Daybook of Comfort and Joy” by Sarah Ban Breathnach became a best seller in 1996 when Oprah Winfrey highlighted it on her television show. In 2004 the popular movie What the Bleep Do We Know!? appeared in movie theatres; at one point it described a series of experiments conducted by Dr. Masaru Emoto’s which focused on the influence that certain thoughts and words had on water molecules. Emoto hypothesized that positive and negative thoughts or words could powerfully alter the structure of ice crystals. During these experiments, participants projected thoughts of gratitude and loving words onto various containers filled with water, which caused the molecular structure of the crystals to form beautiful shapes under microscope, whereas angry or hateful thoughts created crystals that were disorganized and fragmented. As a result Emoto came to believe that the power of gratitude, appreciation and love possessed an ability to transform human consciousness. No matter what hard-core scientists might think of Emoto’s study today, its place in popular culture demonstrates the trend of using appreciation as a tool for self-improvement.
The Use of Appreciation as a Therapeutic Tool
Clinicians use appreciation or gratitude exercises, such as keeping a gratitude journal, in order to help build self-esteem within their clients. This is not a bad idea in the short-run.
Expressing gratitude and appreciation can be very powerful. Dr. Noelle Nelson (2003, p. 2) states, “Appreciation consists of two vital components: gratitude plus valuing. It is this combination of gratitude and valuing that gives appreciation its power as a transformative energy.” Research conducted at Yale University found that optimism, something that frequently results when a person uses appreciation on a regular basis, improves one’s health (Levit, 2013, para 3). When appreciation is actively used in the work force, productivity improves. (Harrison, 2005-2013)
However, appreciation exercises don’t go far enough when there is no delineation between the internal elements that an individual possesses and external forces. Many times these exercises emphasize things that the person has no control over (i.e. “I appreciate sunshine and warm weather” or “I am grateful for my next door neighbor who helped to dig my car out when it was buried in snow”). It also encourages a person to focus on the acquisition of material things (“I am grateful for my new winter coat”) or competition (“I am grateful that I got the job promotion”) as a way of measuring or increasing one’s self-esteem.
Psychotherapy should be more than just a feel good process. Human beings need more than increased self-esteem. Resilience is also needed when meeting life’s bumps in the road. Life is not always good and things happen that realistically shouldn’t make a person feel good. Sometimes the journey is about finding value fulfillment. Developing a sense of presence is important. Being tuned in to one’s very existence versus ‘numbing out’ includes a certain tolerance for discomfort. Therefore if appreciation starts and stops with merely making a list of external blessings, the task remains simplistic and superficial.
Ultimately people want to experience themselves as powerful creators, yet they cannot be powerful creators if they only notice things outside of themselves. Powerful creation is more than just feeling good about one’s self, and it isn’t found by focusing on what a person has been given. It requires an individual to feel his or her very existence. Therapy shouldn’t be mere reflection. It should incorporate action. Noelle and Calaba (2003, p. 3) state: “When you value something or someone, you actively use your mind to think of it, why it matters to you, what it is worth to you.” Thus, the action of appreciation should be dynamic rather than static (Oestreich, 2010).
The Importance of Self-Appreciation
Oftentimes, when it comes to the power of appreciation, what seems to be missing from the equation is the notion of self-appreciation. An expression of gratitude or appreciation that focuses on external forces or circumstances does not take into account one’s own creation and the power of such, nor does it foster a sense of agency in the world, although this is a crucial element in experiencing self-empowerment. “When you step outside the idea of appreciation as gratitude expressed after the fact, and start to think of appreciation as an energy you use proactively with intention, it’s an entirely different experience.” (Noelle & Calaba, 2003, p.3) Focusing on self-appreciation may cause a person to feel uncomfortable. In the Western world, individuals have been encouraged to think outside of themselves. Children are taught the importance of thanking others. Oftentimes, a person’s self-esteem is rooted in what other people think. In school children learn to label themselves intelligent because teachers have doled out high marks. As an individual grows older and becomes adult, he or she will find success on the job because tangible rewards or positive comments come from others. Parents think of themselves as good and competent if their children are well-behaved and don’t cause problems in the community.
Concomitantly, if individuals think too highly of themselves, they may worry that they are getting a ‘big head’, running the risk of being labeled “narcissistic.” However, true self-appreciation is not an action that reflects narcissism. Narcissists don’t believe in their self-worth. They focus on their special qualities as an advertisement to prove their worth to others or to defend against vulnerability. Therefore, there is a difference between having a healthy regard for oneself and being narcissistic. When a person truly believes him or herself to be worthy and capable there is no need to brag or advertise. If a person genuinely appreciates his or her own strengths or skill sets, there is more likely to be humility rather than smugness. The certainty found in self-appreciation will reflect quiet constraint.
The Dynamic of Self-Appreciation
Individuals cannot become powerful creators by only noticing those things outside of themselves. A sense of agency comes from a person noticing what he or she is doing and when, as well as understanding the motivations behind personal action. If an individual spends time being grateful for a computer, a new pair of shoes or because a co-worker smiled, the focus is not on him or herself. There is disregard for the way in which an individual managed or achieved these things. On the other hand if an individual can appreciate keeping his or her cool when feeling frustrated, which helped to recall the importance of rebooting, or if an individual can appreciate his or her sense of patience which enabled the saving of money until new shoes could be afforded — that is a very different experience — because it takes into account an individual’s action, strength or inner quality in relation to the world and in relation to struggle.
Self-appreciation is about appreciating who you are versus what you have. It includes the observing self — you as the possessor of the trait in action. It includes what you are creating in the here and now. It is about truly loving yourself and appreciating what you are working towards in life. Life’s moments can be messy; therefore it’s helpful when self-appreciation includes how a skill or trait is used in relation to the larger world, such as: “I like my sense of humor, especially this afternoon because the people around me seemed tense. My humor helped break the ice and relax others.”
A person already may know that he or she is good at something or possesses a positive trait, but an individual may not feel the true value of such nor be able to gauge the degree of benefit to self and others (Oestreich, 2010). In order to fully express appreciation within, a person needs to see how this quality helps in the present moment. Self-appreciation is not simply a string of positive affirmations that a person tells him or herself. It incorporates the appreciation of what the person is working on throughout life’s journey, along with the awareness that he or she steers the ship.
Nelson, Noelle & Calaba, Jeanine (2003) The Power of Appreciation: Hillsboro, Oregon. Beyond Words Publishing Inc
Breathnach, Sarah Ban (2009) Simple Abundance: A Daybook of Comfort and Joy: New York, NY. Grand Central Publishing
Oestreich, Dan (2010). On the Meaning of Self-Appreciation. Retrieved from http://www.unfoldingleadership.com/blog/?p=1553
What the Bleep Do We Know?! Water Crystals. Retrieved from www.whatthebleep.com/water-crystals.
Levit, Alexandra (2013). Retrieved from http://blog.alexandralevit.com/wcw/2013/05/how-to-be-more-optimistic-at-work.html
Harrison, Kim (2005-2013) Retrieved from http://www.cuttingedgepr.com/articles/emprecog_so_important.asp