490: 5 Gratitude Practices to Optimize Your Emotional State with Dr. Peggy DeLong

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Dr. Peggy DeLong

Life is an unpredictable journey, full of exhilarating highs and gut-wrenching turns that can leave you breathless. And yet, some people seem to navigate these ups and downs with more grace than others. So what’s their secret?

Joining me for this conversation is the brilliant and inspirational Dr. Peggy DeLong, also known as The Gratitude Psychologist.

In this episode, she shares her research-backed strategies for harnessing resilience, joy, gratitude, and meaning when the going gets tough.

You’ll learn the five daily practices you can start today that will empower you to manage grief, stress, and loss in a healthier way. You’ll be able to find gratitude even in the darkest corners of life and clear the path for positivity as you go through life.



KEY TAKEAWAYS

  • How to find gratitude when your whole world falls apart.
  • Strategies for rewiring your brain to focus on the positives.
  • Tricking your brain to feel good on command.
  • The great things that happen when you stop running from emotional pain.
  • Using grief as a trigger for feeling gratitude and love.
  • How gratitude helps you build deeper, richer relationships.
 

AYG TWEETABLES

“Truly we cannot heal what we don't feel, so we need to feel our sadness, and using gratitude is one way to know that you're not going to get stuck there.”

“I love that gratitude is free, and it's accessible at any minute of the day. And you don't need another person. You don't need an accessory. It's just always available.”

 

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Hal Elrod: Dr. Peggy DeLong, it is so great to be with you today.

Dr. Peggy DeLong: Thank you for having me, Hal. I’m so excited for our conversation.

Hal Elrod: I think it’s appropriate to say that I am grateful to be with you today. And we were just talking about gratitude before we even started. And you’re known as the gratitude psychologist. So, what I’m excited about is you have so much more research. Like, gratitude is the fundamental lens that I experience in my life but I couldn’t quote studies and give data and research and how our brain works on gratitude. And so, that’s why I’m excited because not only as I’m sure my audience is going to learn a ton and be invited to experience more gratitude in their life but I feel like I’m going to learn a ton. And so, thank you in advance for talking to me today. I really appreciate it.

Dr. Peggy DeLong: My pleasure.

Hal Elrod: And I want to start by saying this and then I’m going to have you obviously share but I believe that gratitude is like the highest form of happiness. Like, when you’re grateful, it’s just the most holistic, deepest, highest, most spiritual, most practical, sustainable form of happiness because I find that most of us we’re chasing happiness in external stimulus, right? Like, if I get that, I’ll feel happy. If I get that, I’ll feel happy. Whereas gratitude comes from the inside out, right? And it’s like I’m grateful for what I have, who I am, everything, and therefore I feel happy because I’m grateful. So, that’s why I’m so excited to talk with you today. Let’s start here. If you could just tell us about a significant event or experience in your early life that played a fundamental role in shaping who you are today and the work that you do around gratitude?

Dr. Peggy DeLong: Sure. I was 26 years old and I was going through an extremely difficult time in my life. And when I discovered the power of gratitude, I was an ungrateful child, I was an ungrateful young adult, and it really took tragedy to open up my eyes to the power of gratitude. I was engaged to a wonderful man. I had applied to graduate school and I had six interviews lined up. Life was going really well and what appeared to be literally overnight, he developed a lump on the side of his neck and it was an extremely aggressive form of cancer. And he survived for seven months but during those last 42 days of his life, the doctors said that there was nothing left that they could do for him and that he was going to die. So, I sat by his bedside in the hospital and every day was so unpredictable. I didn’t know if he’d be able to speak that day. I didn’t know if he’d be able to open his eyes that day. I didn’t know if he was going to die that day. Every day was so gut-wrenching, awful, and unpredictable.

But the one thing that was predictable was that I could get myself a cup of hazelnut coffee after all of the visitors left and I was allowed to stay. So, at 8 p.m., I would drink that cup of hazelnut coffee. The aroma permeated his hospital room, made it seem less sterile. It reminded me of my high school days sharing a cup before high school days with my mother. It just brought me so much comfort. I had no idea that what I was doing was practicing gratitude. When my whole world fell apart, I found joy in the simplest of things. And I never expected that it would come in the form of a cup of hazelnut coffee. And then, sadly, after my fiancée passed away, my father died suddenly six weeks later, and gratitude continued to be the source of comfort for me to really focus on all that was going well in my life when it felt like everything had fallen apart. So, that really transformed me but I had no idea at 26 that what I was doing was practicing gratitude. I just hung on to it because it felt better. And then as I began to study psychology, I really became interested in gratitude and really everything under the umbrella of positive psychology. So, that’s one experience that really transformed me personally and has been the focus of my life professionally.

Hal Elrod: Wow. So, your husband passed and then your father passed within a matter of weeks of each other. And so, in gratitude, now, I really resonate with that because I know for me that when I’ve gone through the most difficult times in my life, it was choosing gratitude, right? And I think that’s the thing is we have to give ourselves permission to be grateful because when you’re going through difficult times in life, like you had every reason to say, to justify why you’re not grateful, why you’re sad or angry or depressed, or all of those things. And I don’t think anybody would have argued with you. They would have pat you on the back and go, “Yeah, you deserve to feel those things.” But gratitude was your lifeline. So, what are some ways that research demonstrates the power, really the powerful positive impact that practicing gratitude has on our mental health? Because I know so many people right now, in our community, around the world are struggling with mental health. What’s the actual research show in terms of the correlation and the impact that practicing gratitude has on benefiting mental health?

Dr. Peggy DeLong: I’m so glad you asked that question because gratitude is often seen as this woo-woo or fluff type thing. So, as a psychologist, it’s really important to me that I demonstrate the research. In fact, my license depends on it. So, that’s what I like to do. So, one study that really caught my attention because I’m the parent of three college students. So, this particular study looked at college students that went to the counseling center for help for depression and anxiety. And they were assigned to three different groups. One group received counseling only, another group received counseling and they were instructed to write about their negative experiences, and another group received counseling, and they were instructed to write one gratitude letter once a week for three weeks. And then they took a look at their self-reported mental health and happiness at the four-week mark. And the group that wrote the gratitude letters had a significantly improved level of self-reported happiness as compared to the other two groups.

And then what was really amazing about this study was they looked at them again at the 12-week mark after they didn’t even write another gratitude letter, and they maintained to that higher level of mental health just by writing three gratitude letters. So, that’s really powerful. That speaks to the power of one simple exercise related to gratitude. And these letters, then they took a look, “Well, what is it about these letters that made it so powerful?” So, not only was it that they were focused on positivity and how they felt about another person but it was also the absence of negativity. So, there’s so much negativity going on in the world. And when you are focused on writing a gratitude letter and thinking about that other person, the relationship, and what they’ve done for you, there’s no room for negativity. So, it’s an escape from the negativity of the world. So, it was really two things going on, the positivity but also the absence of the negativity.

Hal Elrod: Yeah. I’ve heard you say that it’s challenging to just get rid of negative thoughts without actually replacing them with positive thoughts, right?

Dr. Peggy DeLong: Yes. You know, our brains, unfortunately, are hardwired to go to the negative. That’s what psychologists called negativity bias. And we’ll find it everywhere. Our brains will find it everywhere and then one negative thought leads to a bigger negative thought and a bigger one. And before we know it, we’re spiraling and feeling so anxious and depressed, and it’s really hard to just shut off that energy. It’s easier to replace it with something positive. And in all of my 30 years in mental health, I have never found anything as easy as gratitude. There is always something to be grateful for, even on the very worst of days.

Hal Elrod: Yeah. As I’m going to sleep at night sometimes it’s the bed that I’m sleeping in, the pillow that I’m laying on, the fact that I’m safe. Like, I’ll just really surrender to the gratitude for that moment, right? That moment.

Dr. Peggy DeLong: Yes.

Hal Elrod: I know that you research, you study brain science. What are some ways that brain science supports the impact of gratitude on our well-being?

Dr. Peggy DeLong: Sure. I love the advances in technology that we can see what happens in the brain when we think about what we’re grateful for. So, the first is the neurotransmitters. The serotonin and dopamine specifically are released from our brain when we think about what we’re grateful for. And this dopamine makes us feel good and serotonin provides a feeling of having enough of feeling relaxed. So, those two neurotransmitters are doing their job when we think about what we’re grateful for. The other is that when we do it on a regular basis, we are truly forming new neural pathways in our brain. And now we can see that through functional MRIs that new neural pathways are being formed to be a more positive thinker when we practice on a regular basis and strengthen those new neural pathways.

Hal Elrod: So, in terms of practicing and let’s get tactical real quick here, I’ve heard you say there are five exercises that you teach in gratitude that people can do every day in less than 5 minutes a day. So, for somebody listening, that’s like, “Okay. I know that I need to be more grateful,” or, “Wow, that’s amazing to think that just practicing gratitude every day will create new neural pathways and will actually be a happier, more well-adjusted human being. Oh my gosh.” What are these five practices that you teach?

Dr. Peggy DeLong: Sure. The very first is when we wake up in the morning, and that is simply to say thank you out loud. We might not be thinking clearly, so we don’t even need to think about what we’re grateful for. It’s just through the power of language and the association of saying thank you with what our brain thinks has happened. So, typically, when we say thank you, we have already received something. So, it’s a way that we can kind of trick our brains to feeling good. And often that’s when people feel the worst, especially when you’re going through a difficult time in life and I know for me, and I think a lot of people who are grieving can relate to almost for just a brief second, having to remind yourself that you lost your loved one. It can hit you first thing in the morning. And by saying thank you, it helps to prevent those negative thoughts from spiraling out of control. So, when people stay in bed and ruminate over negative thoughts, you can start to have a terrible day before you’ve even gotten out of bed. And saying thank you out loud is one way to prevent that negative spiral and that takes maybe 2 seconds and you have just a shift to have a better day.

The second exercise is to set your intention at the beginning of the morning to be more aware of your blessings. And this you can do while you’re in the shower, you could do while you’re brushing your teeth. So, you attach it to a behavior that you already do so that it doesn’t take any more time. And the reason this is so powerful is because it activates part of our brain called the reticular activating system. So, that’s part of our brain that works as a filter. It helps us pay attention to the things that we want to pay attention to and less attention to the things that we don’t want to. So, when we intentionally focus on our blessings, we notice them more. And it really is a powerful exercise that works behind the scenes. Like, it’s an intentional thing but then your brain does the rest for you throughout the day and that doesn’t take any more time. I like to use the doorframe of my bedroom as a reminder, like once I leave that bedroom, then the whole world, then I’ve got to check emails, the dog needs to be fed like everything else. So, if you do it before you leave your bedroom, you’re much more likely to set your intention.

The third exercise is to express appreciation for one person every day. That can be in the form of a simple text or an email, sending a gratitude letter, just being mindful of every day, expressing appreciation for one person. And this is a powerful exercise because the number one factor related to happiness is our human relationships. So, when we foster that, it’s time well spent. Anything that we do to foster our human relationships is time well spent and not only predicts our happiness but actually longevity as well. So, you can get really creative in how you express appreciation. And not only does it make you feel good but then in the process you’re making somebody else feel good. So, that’s exercise number three.

Exercise number four is probably the most difficult but is also the most powerful, and that is to use your emotional pain as a trigger to practice gratitude. I always say that gratitude is not a method to ignore our emotional pain. When we ignore our pain, we kind of emotionally flatline. It’s very similar to general anesthesia. If you’re having surgery and have general anesthesia, you don’t get to pick and choose what body parts go numb. It all goes numb. The same thing when we don’t allow ourselves to feel sadness and grief, well, we just become emotionally numb. And then we also don’t get to feel the fullness of joy. So, when we use gratitude in terms of processing our negative emotions, it is one way to help us feel through it. It’s not ignoring the pain but it’s helping us to feel a little bit lighter as we move through it. Because truly we cannot heal what we don’t feel so we need to feel our sadness and using gratitude is one way to know that you’re not going to get stuck there. It feels a little bit less heavy. And when you do it on a regular basis, you know that it works. So, it also allows you to address your pain on a deeper level the next time you might be feeling disappointed, betrayed, or whatever painful emotion that might be. It helps you trust that you’re not going to get stuck there. And even in the very worst of circumstances, there’s always something to be grateful for. There’s a lesson.

And one technique that I like to teach that when it’s really hard is to look for the underlying value. So, for example, in the midst of really deep grief, which I unfortunately experienced with the loss of my fiancé and father at the same time, it was such a heavy time, what the underlying value was love. I would not have experienced that grief if I didn’t have the underlying value of love. So, I focused on the love, the love from them, and all the love that was supporting me through that really difficult time. So, look for the underlying value. You wouldn’t have that pain if that value didn’t exist. So, then find a way to celebrate that value or be that value for the day. So, that’s a really powerful one, the overarching message of not to ignore your emotional pain. All of these methods work but they don’t work as well if we don’t allow ourselves to feel pain.

And then the fifth is an exercise at bedtime to just think about one or two things that you’re grateful for that happened that day. Because when you focus on that day, the real magic happens the next day, because then you’re training your brain to notice all of the good things that happened the next day because you know you’re going to hold yourself accountable at bedtime. So, it’s like you bank it in your brain, you notice a great thing, and even you highlight the good as it’s happening, and then you get to re-experience it at bedtime. And I like to caution people, instead of a list of ten things, it’s much more powerful if you focus on one or two and then think about the details of those one or two things. And it’s a really powerful exercise at bedtime because it relaxes our nervous system. Many people tend to feel the heaviness of anxiety or grief at bedtime, and it’s one way to focus on something positive rather than feeling anxious and trying to fall asleep.

And in fact, one study looked at 400 adults, and when they think or thought about one simple thing at bedtime, they reported improved sleep, improved quality and duration of sleep simply by thinking about one thing that they were grateful for at bedtime. And the really significant part of that study was that 40% of the adults in the study were diagnosed with a sleep disorder. So, this is even helpful I think for people who are really struggling with falling asleep to think about one simple thing at bedtime. So, those are the five exercises, and on a really busy day, they don’t need to take more than 5 minutes. Of course, you could get really into it and spend a lot of time with one on a particular day but even on the busiest of days, 5 minutes, and it truly transforms lives.

Hal Elrod: I love that. You and I are so on the same page. So, number one, say thank you first thing in the morning. That’s what I do. When my feet hit the floor, I sit on the side of my bed and I just stretch and I say, “Thank you, God, for today. Thank you, God, for today.” I want to ask you real quick, too, on that. What are any thoughts on expressing your gratitude toward something such as God or, you know, like I find that for me, if I just say thank you, it doesn’t feel the same as if I say, “Thank you, God.” Like, when I say, “Thank you, God,” those three words just fill my heart with gratitude, if you will. So, I’m curious as to, like, there’s a benefit to directing your gratitude toward someone or something.

Dr. Peggy DeLong: And particularly with that question in the morning and to God, that’s really an individual thing that works with people who are more spiritual and/or religious but not so much if someone is not. So, that really depends on the individual, and there would be as many different answers as there are people, I would say. But one of the definitions that I love about gratitude is that it puts you in such a state of appreciation that it makes you want to return kindness. So, returning that kindness is one way that I think is universal. That’s a little bit of a different twist on what you’re asking for but I think that when you feel so great about your life and just the simple you know, for me, this cup of hazelnut coffee that put me in such a state of gratitude, it then made me a, I thought, a better caregiver during that time. And I was able to return kindness through the power of gratitude.

Hal Elrod: Awesome. I would encourage you, I’m going to read through these five steps again. I’d encourage everybody to write these down because these are super simple. They’re super quick. And if you do these every day, write them down, do like a 30-day challenge where you commit to these five steps every day and you will, and then they become a habit. They become second nature. So, number one, say thank you first thing in the morning. So, say thank you. Express gratitude that you woke up that day. Number two, set your intention to be grateful for the day before you even leave the bedroom. So, today, I’m going to be grateful for every moment, every opportunity, every conversation, every person in my life, every meal, every bite that I take, every breath that I take. It’s an endless supply of what we can be grateful for. Number three, express appreciation to at least one person every day. And I know for me, Peggy, like I said, an intention years ago, decades ago, I’m one of the most grateful person that I know. And so, for me, I express gratitude to the point where my kids were like, “Yeah, dad, we get it. You’re grateful for us, or you appreciate us.” But I want them to be so annoyed that when my daughter is in her college dorm feeling lonely or sad, it’s like so deeply embedded in her that like her dad loves her and is grateful for her.

So, number three, express appreciation for at least one person every day. Number four, use your emotional pain as a trigger to experience gratitude. And, Peggy, I know for me, when I was in the hardest times in my life, my car accident, my cancer, I chose to be the most grateful I had ever been while I endured the most difficult time in my life. And if you’re watching or listening to this, consider that the two are not mutually exclusive. You can literally be Peggy, as you were when you lost your husband, you lost your father in a matter of months to each other, gratitude was your saving grace. And so, if you’re watching or listening to this, even in the most difficult time in your life, you can choose to be the most grateful you’ve ever been. So, number four, use your emotional pain as a trigger to experience gratitude. And number five, I love that, Peggy, your bedtime exercise. I do that. I fall asleep feeling grateful. Think of one or two things that happened that day that you’re grateful for. And, Peggy, I love the advice you gave, which is, it’s not about quantity, right? Don’t just touch on ten different things. Pick one or two and go deep. And that’s what I do. I think of an experience like playing ball with my son that day, and I’ll just relive that and I’ll smile. Right? Or I’ll be grateful for my wife and the value that she brings to my life and the love and all of those things. So, I love that, five simple exercises you all can do every single day to be more grateful.

And the last thing I want to ask you, Peggy, on the topic of gratitude, and you touched on this earlier but I’d love to hear more about it. Research shows that the greatest predictor of happiness and longevity is our relationships, the quality of our relationships. What are some ways that people can combine gratitude and relationships or use gratitude to improve and enhance and optimize their relationships?

Dr. Peggy DeLong: Great question. I love this because you’re doing two things at once, and my favorite, in addition to gratitude letters, is what I call team gratitude. So, that is picking one person and choosing a length of time to share what you’re grateful for on a daily basis. So, it could be a week. It could be a month. And I’ve had some clients even do it for an entire year, and it completely transformed their relationship. They felt closer and more connected and happier. So, the idea is to just share every day whether it might be by text. You could get really creative and send a video to someone or a photo and just share what you’re grateful for on a daily basis. And this has so many wonderful benefits. So, the first is the human connection. By doing it on a regular basis, you are building in human connection on a daily basis, and then you eat. And the predictability of that helps to feel good also. The second is simply by sharing what you’re grateful for. That feels good. And the other part is that you get to hear what someone else is grateful for, and that helps to expand your awareness of things to be grateful for.

The other person might say something that you’ve got going on in your life as well but you may have overlooked it as something to be grateful for. And hearing somebody else express gratitude for that helps you to highlight, enhance it in your own life as well. So, so many reasons why I love team gratitude but particularly the benefit of fostering a really close relationship with one person.

Hal Elrod: Now, is team gratitude for you, is that choosing? So, it’s like choosing the one person that you’re your gratitude partner, if you will?

Dr. Peggy DeLong: Yes.

Hal Elrod: I’d imagine spouse is the first person that comes to mind. It could be a friend, spouse.

Dr. Peggy DeLong: And it can be really powerful if you choose somebody that you’re not living with and that you’d like to rekindle an old relationship like a friend from college or a high school friend. And you have many opportunities for closeness with a spouse, dinner, just doing things on a daily basis when you’re living together. It can get really fun if you’re doing it with somebody that you don’t live with but it is also if you’re struggling in a marriage or in any relationship, it’s a wonderful way, in a positive way to foster closeness.

Hal Elrod: I would argue, I mean, in my own life but gratitude to me is it’s one of if not the most important areas for us to be present to experience, to express. To me, it’s the lens to experience life through like, “Oh my gosh, I’m going through a difficult time. I’m grateful for the opportunity to face this so I can learn, grow, and become better than I’ve ever been before.” “Oh, I had something great happen in my life. I’m going to get so deeply grateful for that thing that it amplifies the benefit of that thing.” If something great happens and you’re like, “Oh, cool, check whatever,” and you’re distracted, to me, the degree of gratitude that you’re present to in your life determines your mental and emotional well-being, your happiness, on and on and on. And I love that you’re talking about how to apply it to relationships because I don’t know about you but if I expressed to my wife how grateful I am for her, she feels great. I feel great. If our kids witness it, they feel great. Everybody wins. And so, at dinnertime, that’s what we do. Before dinner every night in my family everyone goes around and shares one thing that we’re grateful for. And when we all pause and just kind of like really we try to experience gratitude that they got to experience that thing that they’re grateful for. So, it’s almost like if there’s one thing you can have too much of in your life, it’s gratitude, right?

Dr. Peggy DeLong: Exactly. And I love that it’s free and it’s accessible at any minute of the day. And you don’t need another person. You don’t need an accessory. It’s just always available.

Hal Elrod: Awesome. You have so much, I mean, I’m sure we could go on and on and on, such a wealth of experience around positive psychology and gratitude. Where is the best place for people to find you, follow up with you, keep learning from you?

Dr. Peggy DeLong: I think the best way is through my website. DrPeggyDeLong.com. And I actually have a five-day challenge related to these five exercises. I call it The Grateful Day, and it’s available at DrPeggyDeLong.com/TheGratefulDay and people can sign…

Hal Elrod: I am going to sign up for it right now. DrPeggyDeLong.com/TheGratefulDay?

Dr. Peggy DeLong: Yes, TheGratefulDay.

Hal Elrod: Done. Now is that a book? The Grateful Day sounds like a great book title. I want to see that. I want to buy that. I want that in print.

Dr. Peggy DeLong: It is my next book. I’m working on it. I have written three and this is going to be number four.

Hal Elrod: What are the titles of your current books?

Dr. Peggy DeLong: Well, the previous one, I Can See Clearly Now: A Memoir About Love, Grief, and Gratitude, and that’s a wonderful book for anybody going through a difficult time for hope that life can be good again, particularly after loss. The other one is a Gratitude Journal. I took the research in psychology and developed a journal that journals are most effective when we do two things, when we’re specific and when we change it up and write something different every day. So, I wrote 30 gratitude prompts that repeat 12 times to help people be really creative in what they write about. And then the third one is called Feeling Good: 35 Proven Ways to Happiness, Even During Tough Times. And that’s really based on what I did as a child, things that help me feel good when I had an argument with a friend or didn’t do well on a test, things that I did when I was 8, when I was 16, and then I dove into the research about it and just to prove that it is really helpful. It’s not just me, it’s not just my clients that it’s demonstrated by research to be effective and put them all together into a nice book that people can flip it to any chapter and find one thing that they can practice that day to feel good.

Hal Elrod: I love all of this. So, I’m assuming your books are on your website.

Dr. Peggy DeLong: Yes.

Hal Elrod: Okay. All right. You all, so go check this out. I’m going to go. I’m going to get the Grateful Day. So, DrPeggyDeLong.com. D-R P-E-G-G-Y and then DeLong is D-E-L-O-N-G. Yes?

Dr. Peggy DeLong: Yes.

Hal Elrod: DrPeggyDeLong.com. Everybody, go check out her work. Peggy, I want to have you back on in the future. When that next book comes out, for sure, reach back out to me. I would love to have you back on and I can really see you as a recurring guest because I feel like any topic like this, like gratitude, you know, it’s like anything that’s important. You hear it once and you’re like, “Oh yeah, totally.” And then if you don’t take action on it, if you don’t take these five practices, start implementing it into your life, you forget it and you go back into your old ungrateful ways and negative rituals and complaining and mindset. I feel like we have to revisit these topics over and over and over for them to really take hold in our subconscious and our conscious mind. And so, yeah, you’re fantastic. Thank you so much for coming on today.

Dr. Peggy DeLong: Thank you so much for having me, Hal.

Hal Elrod: All right. Goal achievers and members of the miracle community, I love you. I appreciate you, and last but not least, I am so grateful for you and for you being part of my life and letting me be a part of yours. And I’m grateful for Peggy, for you bringing your wisdom and heart to today’s episode and I will talk to you all next week. Take care, everybody.

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