If you’re a cynical cop, 2020 was your year. Nothing like a pandemic and civil and political unrest to reinforce your distrust of human nature and motive. While doubting the intentions of others can help you keep your head on a swivel and practice good officer safety on duty, it is important to keep things in perspective. If you maintain focus on only the negative, you run the risk of developing a cynical disposition that can damage your well-being, your relationships and your workplace. Practicing gratitude daily can help you maintain a healthy perspective by balancing the negative aspects of the experiences you have both on and off duty.
So, what is gratitude? The good news is that it does not involve hugs, patchouli or singing kumbaya while holding hands in a circle. Gratitude is an appreciation for the things we have — both tangible and intangible. Expressing gratitude is more than just saying “thank you” or taking the time to appreciate what you have; it has been shown to positively impact how our brain and body respond to stress. When practiced regularly, gratitude has been linked with improved general well-being, increased resilience and strengthened relationships.
Gratitude goes beyond the notion that simple gestures of appreciation are supposed to magically make us feel “warm and fuzzy.” It has been shown to have a measurable, positive impact on brain functioning and mental health. For example, gratitude has been positively correlated with activity in the parts of the brain that are associated with empathy, impulse control, emotion and decision-making. Additionally, regularly expressing gratitude has been shown to lower heart rate and positively impact the parts of the brain that regulate anxiety and depression. In social settings, expressing gratitude has been shown to increase neurochemical production that is associated with the formation of human bonds. Gratitude has also been shown to positively impact a person’s mental health by improving mood and enhancing the ability to cope with challenging situations.
To be clear, gratitude does not mean that we should ignore the negative and pretend that everything is great. Oftentimes, difficult situations elicit negative emotions. This is entirely normal. The problem occurs when we get “stuck” in an unhealthy space and stay focused on the negative. Gratitude is all about balancing some of the negative with some positive to maintain a healthy perspective and appreciation for the things that we have, even when times are tough.
There are different ways to practice gratitude, and every person is unique in what works for them. Try different things until you find what works for you. The goal is to intentionally choose how you perceive and interact with your environment by taking the time to shift your focus to thoughtful appreciation each day. Here are some examples of how to practice gratitude:
- Take the time to appreciate what you have. One officer told me, “It’s tough being a cop right now, but I’m grateful to be able to keep my job when so many people have lost theirs.”
- Express gratitude to others. When someone takes the time to express their appreciation for something we did, it feels good. Often, we appreciate something that someone did, but we do not say it out loud. Take the time to tell someone, “Thank you.”
- Find the good in the bad. Hard times often lead to new things — perhaps a new perspective or a new relationship. Try to find the other side of a difficult situation. If you struggle finding something good, look for something that’s not that bad.
- Have gratitude for the little things. Think of the saying “You don’t know what you have until it’s gone.” It is easy to lose sight of the little things, such as air-conditioning on a hot day or having a mattress to sleep on. It may seem like no big deal, but even appreciating the seemingly unimportant things on a regular basis can help you maintain perspective.
As with other tools to improve your well-being, consistent use of gratitude is key to maximizing its benefit. Try different ways to implement gratitude daily, such as:
- Starting and ending your day by writing down two or three things you are grateful for
- Thanking someone or expressing your appreciation for something they did
- Using regular daily occurrences as a moment to think of one thing that you are grateful for (for example, when washing your hands, eating or stopping at a red light)
In a time when there are many things beyond our control, we have the ability to choose what we focus on. Give gratitude a try. Over time, your brain and body will return the favor and thank you by becoming a little bit healthier each day.
Medina Baumgart, Psy.D., is an organizational psychologist who works in the Psychological Services Bureau of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.