CHICAGO -- Let's be real: Sometimes it's just plain hard to give thanks.
It may be because of personal issues like a job loss, a death in the family, the end of a relationship or an illness. Or it could be the accumulation of terrible events in the world whether it be natural disasters, mass shootings, the daily drumbeat of sexual assault news or the failings of our political system.
Under such circumstances, it's normal to feel overwhelmed by the injustices of life.
And yet, these are the very times when it's more important than ever to be grateful for all that is going well in our lives.
In fact, gratitude is the best method for combating all the negativity that swirls around us on a daily basis, according to Robert Emmons, a psychology professor at the University of California, Davis and the author of "The Little Book of Gratitude: Create a Life of Happiness and Well-Being by Giving Thanks."
"In my research, I have been amazed that the most grateful individuals have often -- from a purely objective level -- lived lives of loss and suffering," Emmons told me. "How can this be? They've had plenty to feel depressed over, and even a sense of victimization wouldn't have been surprising. This is where it becomes useful to make a distinction between feeling grateful and being grateful. Of course, no one 'feels' grateful that they have suffered. How could they? But they understood that they could choose to maintain a grateful outlook on life, as a fundamentally enduring orientation that says that amidst the rancor of daily life, an underlying goodness exists in the universe and therefore 'I will be grateful in spite of the circumstances.'"
Emmons calls this "defiant gratitude," a term that speaks to the spirit of taking your feelings about a situation into your own hands instead of letting them control you.
Sure, this is easy to say. We've all read research about how people with the syrupy-sounding "attitude of gratitude" report feeling healthier, being less depressed, getting a better night's sleep and having more and better relationships.
But if you struggle with pessimism (and let's face it, some of us were born into worry-wart families and grew up looking at the storm clouds and not their silver linings), exercising "defiant gratitude" has a certain appeal.
"To offset chronic negativity, we need to continually and perpetually hear good news," Emmons said. "We need to constantly and regularly create and take in positive experiences, and gratitude is our best weapon, an ally to counter these internal and external threats that rob us of sustainable joy."
According to Emmons, entitlement is the opposite of gratitude. So if you can't see yourself as someone who is grateful, try considering whether you'd rather be seen as entitled -- a character trait that usually pairs well with "jerk."
"An entitlement attitude says, 'life owes me something' or 'people owe me something' or 'I deserve this,'" Emmons said. "It comes from a focus on the self rather than others. In all its manifestations, a preoccupation with the self can cause us to forget our benefits and our benefactors or to feel that we are owed things from others and therefore have no reason to feel thankful."
Yuck, that definitely doesn't sound like the kind of person any one of us wants to be. Self-absorption is another one -- no one in their right mind would want to be described that way.
To counter this, Emmons says, you must continually think about the people who have done things for you that you would never have been able to do for yourself. Another way to cultivate gratitude is to think about all the people who you take for granted. Make a mental list of all those who take care of you or make your life easier -- and be thankful for them.
The last pro tip Emmons offered was, perhaps, the most important:
"Those who fail to feel gratitude cheat themselves out of their experience of life. And why would we want to cheat ourselves? Why would be want to become victims when we can empower ourselves to choose our own attitudes and thus emotional states? A very wise person once said, 'If there is any day in our life that is not Thanksgiving Day, then we are not fully alive.' Gratitude is simply too good to be left at the Thanksgiving table."
Amen to that.