When I work with people who have gone through deep waters – whose life experience includes trauma that overwhelmed their resilience and robbed them of their ability to cope – I sometimes recall my own traumatic journey and the path I took to wellness.
From that journey, I learned to embrace joy – not the faux emotion we sometimes confuse with happiness, but the deep, abiding awareness that even in the midst of the worst of life experience, it is possible to align your spirit with the God who is the source of all that is good and glorious in the universe.
Joy is to happiness as celebration is to gratitude. And it is in that realization that I gained an insight into one of the most essential and consequential truths of mental wellness – a realization that has made me a far more effective therapist.
It has long been a mainstay of mental health treatment to encourage those suffering from depression to cultivate and foster an “attitude of gratitude” – to identify those things in one’s life for which s/he is thankful. Many counsellors encourage the keeping of a gratitude journal, a record of the things for which one can be thankful, even when things are not going particularly well.
It is an exercise similar to the obligatory exercise each Thanksgiving meal to declare something for which each person is thankful. “Good health,” one says. “Family,” “friends,” and, inevitably, “this great meal.”
Have you ever noticed that this recounting is in the moment only? How many of us can remember the list of things we recounted only the previous week? Our “attitude of gratitude” has to be continually recalled and renewed or it is easily forgotten.
For those navigating painful life experiences, it’s an exercise that often requires more persistence and intentionality than what they are able to achieve. What appears to be a benign and helpful admonition only adds to their sense of loss and shame. “I am so depressed that I cannot be thankful for anything,” they confess. “Don’t ask me to do what I cannot.”
Their reaction is understandable. It is difficult to find things to be thankful for in one’s grief, or injury, or discouragement, or great need. That is because their focus remains on that which is overwhelming them, and creating a list of things for which they can be grateful is seen as an exercise that requires more effort than the benefit they can foresee.
When I counsel, I do not ask my client to come up with a gratitude list. I instead ask them to find two to five things which they are able to celebrate in the midst of that dark experience. Celebration, I explain, is something that extends beyond the moment, that continues throughout the valley experience, and that will likely continue after. It is memorable, it is life-changing, and it makes new things possible in one’s life experience.
The difference between celebration and gratitude is in its focus. Gratitude is for that which exists in the moment. Celebration is for that which is sustained and continuing. It is the difference between the job and the career. Between the kiss and the marriage.
Gratitude requires acknowledgment. Celebration requires intention. When we find things to celebrate even in our difficulties, we mitigate the power of those negative experiences over our thoughts and emotions.
“I lost my job,” one might say, “but I celebrate the experience I gained while I was employed in that job. I celebrate the friendships I made during my employment, and that I have the health I need for the job hunt.”
Or perhaps one is dealing with a diagnosis of a serious, life-threatening illness. S/he can celebrate that skilled doctors had gained the skills and experience to make the diagnosis. That options for treatment exist. That treatment is available nearby.
Even where these examples of things to celebrate would not apply, there will always be others that can be found. A nearby friend who is able to be an encouragement. A good book that is a welcome distraction. A life lesson learned that can be part of one’s legacy.
No matter what you may be facing, there is always something to celebrate, even in the darkest times. The beauty of Creation. The love of family. The opportunity to impart wisdom. It is the chance to step beyond the negative experience that allows the celebration to take place, like a renewed friendship at a funeral or a wedding in wartime.
Be grateful, yes. Then go further, and celebrate.