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Hope in a Prison of DespairI woke up happy this morning, much like I do every morning.  I woke up in a soft bed with clean sheets, surrounded by love.  As I woke, cats were already at the door begging for food, and birds were outside singing in joy at the dawn of a new day.  The breeze was playing a soft melody on the windchimes, and the house was already ringing with laughter.  As I waited for coffee to brew, I took a moment to see what my Facebook friends were doing.

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“…for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”  William Shakespeare, Hamlet

Hamlet was a dreary guy to be around.  He had it all:  he was the Prince of Denmark, which means he had money and power.  His life was full of potential.  Plus, he had the love of the beautiful Ophelia.  Anyone else in his position might have been very grateful to be so fortuitously placed in life.  But not Hamlet.  Hamlet was chronically depressed and whined and moaned about everything.   From the outside looking in, Hamlet’s life seemed pretty cushy; but from his point of view, Denmark was a prison, and “a goodly one,” at that.  Like I said, Hamlet was a real drag.  Do you know people like that? Just being around them can suck the life out of you; a few minutes in their presence and any good feelings you had begin to grow mold and rot.

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“Both abundance and lack exist simultaneously in our lives, as parallel realities. It is always our conscious choice which secret garden we will tend… when we choose not to focus on what is missing from our lives but are grateful for the abundance that’s present — love, health, family, friends, work, the joys of nature and personal pursuits that bring us pleasure — the wasteland of illusion falls away and we experience Heaven on earth.”

— Sarah Ban Breathnach

Pain has a way of getting our complete and undivided attention.  When we are hurting — whether physically or emotionally — it is hard not to focus on the pain.  The Law of Attraction tells us that whatever we focus on is what we will manifest in our lives, so if we focus on pain and misery, guess what?  We’ll just keep getting more of the same.

So how do we keep an attitude of gratitude when our pain is commanding all of our attention?  Easier said than done, right?  How do we focus on abundance when our electricity is being shut off because we can’t find enough work to pay the bills?  How do we focus on how grateful we are for the people in our lives when those very people are using or abusing us?  How do we focus on how good we have it when depression holds us captive in a deep hole of dark despair and desolation?  It seems impossible. It reminds me of that South Park episode where one of the kids has a gay dog.  “Don’t be gay, Sparky!” they kept telling him.  Like that did any good. When we’re going through a bad time, the last thing we want is for people telling us things like: “Don’t worry, be happy!” “Look on the bright side!”  “Just be grateful for the good things!”  “Just choose happiness!”  “Keep an attitude of gratitude!”  When pain or depression have taken hold of us good and square, that kind of meaningless advice seems ridiculously naive.  Yet, a healthy dose of gratitude is exactly what we need in those situations.

There’s a vicious cycle that exists between thinking and emotions.   When you’re depressed (or angry, or worried), your emotional state causes you to think thoughts that encourage and justify your depression, which in turn make you even more depressed, which causes you to think up even more reasons for being depressed.  It doesn’t take long for a depressive cycle to turn into a closed feedback loop that only allows for more depressed thoughts and emotions.  The best way out of that loop is to break the pattern by forcing your brain to focus on something else.  I’m not saying it’s easy.  It may even be one of the hardest things you ever learn to do.  But like any other skill you learn in life, if you work that muscle you can make it strong so that it can serve you when you really need it.  The trick is to start with small steps, and to consistently repeat the process over and over until you’ve developed gratitude muscles that can pull you out of any hole, no matter how deep you fall in.

Here are ten suggestions for those times when you’re so caught up in being miserable that you just don’t feel like being grateful.

1.  Take a nap.  Clear your calendar, find a babysitter, and just curl up into a ball for a day.  Pain of any kind is exhausting.  Mental and emotional pain is the most exhausting kind of all.  When kids get cranky we put them down for a nap.  We should do the same thing ourselves.  When you feel yourself getting irritable, depressed, angry, anxious, or miserable, take a time out.  Get some sleep.  Your brain and your emotions will be much more cooperative after a good nap.

2.  Go to your happy place.  Find a place with really good energy and lots of natural beauty, and just be still for a while.  It helps to have chosen this spot long before you got into this state.  Nature has a calming effect, I think because we can sense that trees and flowers, oceans and rivers, the stars and the moon, are already perfect in and of themselves without all the bustle and activity that we bring to life.  Find a place outside where you can feel the breeze on your skin and the sun on your face, where you can smell flowers and dirt, and hear birds and bugs.  Soak it all in.  Take time to really appreciate every aspect of this environment.  Find things about your happy place that you are grateful for, and begin to say them out loud, or write them down in a gratitude journal.  If you’re feeling really daring, thank the flowers for being so beautiful at a time when you really needed something beautiful in your life.  When you’re in a really bad emotional state it’s easier to be grateful for something outside of your immediate situation, so being grateful for a sunny day is a good first step.

3.  Take a walk.  After you’ve had a nap and have started to look around you for small things to appreciate, taking a walk will help to loosen tense muscles, and will also cause your breathing to deepen.  All of this will help to change your physiology, which will make it easier to change your thinking.  As you walk, make it a point not to rehash whatever story has been going through your mind that has perpetuated this mood.  Instead, repeat positive affirmations, or pray, or sing a song.  The idea is to engage in any active positive mental process that gets your thinking out of the destructive and negative loop it’s been stuck in.  While you’re doing it, feel a deep appreciation for your body and for the health that makes walking possible for you.

4.  Clean the house.  If you’re really depressed and that seems too huge, just clean one surface, mindfully.  Make a neat stack.  Fold some clothes.  Clean a mirror.  One of the basic human needs is a desire for certainty.  When your life feels upside down, cleaning something can give you just enough of a sense of certainty to help you take those first few steps out of the darkness.  As you’re cleaning, really appreciate whatever it is you’re giving your attention to.  Be grateful for the feel and smell of warm, clean laundry.  Be grateful for hot water, and the dishes you get to eat nourishing food out of.  Be grateful for your home or your car as you care for them.  Make it a point to find something good to be grateful for in every item you clean.

5.  Love your pet.  Pet’s give us unconditional love, another basic human need.  Your pet will know that you’re upset, and will gladly give you all the extra love you need.  Soak it up.  Feel their warmth, and let their love for you fill your heart with gratitude.  If you don’t have a pet, I’m sorry.  You’re really missing out.

6.  Learn something new.  Another basic human need we all share is the desire for variety, and a healthy way to meet that need is to learn something new.  Learn a new song.  Invent a better way of doing something.  Rearrange the furniture.  Whatever.  Bringing some new skill or knowledge to your life  breathes fresh air into your world that can vastly improve your thinking patterns.

7.  Get over yourself. They say the fastest way to get depressed is to think only of yourself.  So broaden the scope of your thinking by brightening someone else’s day.  I know, you’re still kind of depressed and don’t feel like being around people yet, so why not send a heartfelt greeting card to someone telling them how grateful you are to have them in your life?  Tell someone how important they are to you, and tell them why you feel that way about them.  I use SendOutCards for this step, because I can send a beautiful greeting card to someone from my computer without ever leaving the house.  Try it, and you’ll be amazed at how much better it makes you feel.  If you’ve been particularly miserable for a while, pouring love into a greeting card is guaranteed to make you cry, but in a good way, and those tears of love will have a wonderful cleansing effect on your mood.  In fact, if you make it a point to send out one heartfelt card every day I predict that you will have fewer bad days overall.

8.  Look into your magic mirror.  They say that other people are mirrors that reflect back what we like about ourselves, and what we hate about ourselves.  So call a friend who you trust to be a mirror of your good aspects.  Admit that you’re feeling down, and ask them to tell you why they are grateful to have you in their lives.  If after the first seven steps you’re still having a hard time finding things to be grateful for, ask a friend to help you see yourself through their loving eyes.  This will help to fulfill another basic human need, the desire to feel significant.  Even when we’re determined to be miserable, sincere praise and the appreciation of someone that we love can be very healing.  Don’t be ashamed to ask.

9.  Go to work.  Getting lost in the flow of your daily routine helps to get you out of your head.  If you totally hate your job, then go help someone else do their work for a while.  It will break your pattern of negative thinking so that you can remember reasons to be grateful.

10.  Keep a gratitude journal. Make it a daily practice to begin and end each day by writing down five things you are grateful for.  Make it a point to find five different things to write down every day.  A good place to develop that habit is with an online gratitude journal like the one at  The Attitude of Gratitude Project.

Going directly from being depressed or angry to being grateful and appreciative is almost impossible.  But like any muscle, if you exercise it every day by developing the practice of focusing on five things you are grateful for, then you are developing a habit of gratitude that will eventually grow into a consistent attitude of gratitude that can change the quality of your life immensely.

What have you got to lose but your bad mood?

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