Being grateful is good for our mental health — even if it's hard sometimes

When we only focus on what's missing from our lives, we can develop a sense of negativity that's hard to shake. Taking time to appreciate the good stuff — trite as it may seem — is important, especially in tough times.

"Gratitude is the healthiest of all human emotions."

These words aren't from the Dalai Lama, but from endocrinologist and stress researcher Hans Selye. The quote is part of a lecture by psychologist Dirk Lehr, who researches and teaches thankfulness at Leuphana University in Lüneburg, Germany.

From my personal observation, gratitude and appreciation are two attitudes that are as underestimated as they are essential for mental health. When it's most difficult for us to summon gratitude, it can often be the most important time for us to do so. 

For me, separating from the father of my child was a particularly dark time. Sometime ago, however, I learned that despite all the pain, there are things to be appreciated. And it's worth paying attention to them.

"Those who are grateful are able to see and appreciate the positive things in life," says Lehr, explaining how gratefulness fosters positivity. That's why I decided to give it a try.

A healthy body is one of the things that we miss particularly when we no longer have it

Start small

Of course, being grateful is easy when everything works out. But even then, many things escape our attention; we tend to take things like safety, good health, and support networks for granted. It's often only when we suddenly lose these things that we are confronted with just how important they are. 

Perhaps this is the crux of gratitude: it comes more easily to those who learn, or are forced, to pay attention to the details. But just like sharing a friendly smile with a stranger, it's easy to forget how significant small acts of kindness and gratitude are — especially when things go wrong.

Audios and videos on the topic

At the same time, it's much easier to be grateful for the little things in life WHEN everything goes wrong. When there doesn't seem to be anything worth being thankful for.

"I tell someone who feels that way: let's give it a try and start paying attention to little things," says health psychologist Dirk Lehr, who also works as a psychotherapist.

He and his team have developed a gratitude app — a kind of digital diary that helps capture the small, beautiful moments in life. With the help of photos or notes, "memory knots" can be tied, says Lehr. The more attuned we are to details, the more we open the door to gratitude.

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In Good Shape | 14.09.2017

Running Against Depression

A matter of practice 

The way I experience the world has changed in recent weeks. I can now enjoy the sun glistening on the river Rhine. The chirping of the birds lifts my spirits. When I run through the slowly warming spring air in the morning, I am happy that my body is fit and able. All this is not a taken-for-grantedness — quite the contrary.

Those who solely focus on what is missing from their lives are forever in a state of dissatisfaction. Of course it's normal to complain, says Dirk Lehr. After all, the ballast has to go somewhere. But, as he points out, "it becomes problematic when focusing on the deficit becomes the basic attitude."

The good news is, Lehr says a change of perspective and the ability to learn to appreciate beautiful moments is a conscious decision that everyone can make. But this conscious decision must be practiced, practiced, practiced. Gratitude is like a muscle — it can be trained, Lehr says. Training that pays off. Especially in bad times.

Animals as therapists

A therapist to cheer you up

Dogs can often help when a psychiatrist has failed. They can make elderly people laugh and earn their trust. Animals and their owners help with therapy in retirement homes - and elderly people enjoy it! This weekend, a symposium is taking place in Hanover, looking at the benefits of animal-assisted therapy.

Animals as therapists

Pets: Good for your health

There might not be any scientific evidence to prove that animal-assisted therapy is effective in treating mental and social illnesses in the long term. But pets are generally acknowledged to be good for your health. Studies show that having a pet cat or dog helps people to handle stress. Cats and dogs are healthy companions!

Animals as therapists

Surrounded by friends

Pets don't judge our behaviour - unlike human friends, psychiatrists say. They can raise children's self-esteem and make it easier for them to express themselves. Dog-assisted therapy is often used with handicapped children, for instance in Russia.

Animals as therapists

On horseback

Riding therapy is basically just riding lessons adapted for people with special needs. The picture shows a handicapped child in India on horseback. The gentle movement is supposed to help with the therapy.

Animals as therapists

Nice and friendly

Llamas are a more exotic form of therapy. Some farms in Germany offer it, for example the Orenda Ranch in Burglauer, Bavaria. "Llamas are good campanions for anxious people. The animals sense if someone feels insecure," says Birgit Appel-Wimschneider, founder of the ranch. Llamas are said to be very curious and to approach people easily.

Animals as therapists

Why shouldn't it help?

The Rzeszow University of Information Technology in Poland even imported 38 alpacas from Chile to use them in therapy for children. You hardly need scientific evidence to know whether it works: just looking at them makes most people feel better.

Animals as therapists

Looking up

Once a month, therapists in Hanover take psychiatry patients on a trip to a local wildlife centre, the "Serengeti Park", where they can feed giraffes and other animals. Researchers at Hanover Medical School say these visits help with the patients' therapy.

Animals as therapists

Proving the theory

At "Serengeti Park", patients can also feed and pet lemurs from Madagascar. Researchers are accompanying the patients on their visits as part of a five-year study, to find out whether cute exotic animals can really help with psychiatric disorders - or if it is just a temporary effect.

Animals as therapists

Controversial

Another animal-assisted therapy often talked about is swimming with dolphins. It is popular with children, but comes in for a lot of criticism. Psychologists say it does not actually benefit the patients. Animal-rights activists warn that the dolphins are often taken from Japan, where they were captured when the dolphin's family was slaughtered. This means the animals are traumatised.

Animals as therapists

Not every animal is suitable

Swimming with beluga whales might be a very special experience for humans. But animal-rights activists say this form of therapy should be banned. They say these Arctic animals cannot stand the warm water used in therapy and die before their time.

Animals as therapists

What is easiest is sometimes best

There are dogs and cats everywhere - and most of them enjoy human companionship. So why go looking for dolphins and whales with the ideal "therapists" so close at hand?