The 'Yes, and...' approach to gratitude

Coping with Grief / Coping with Grief : Eleanor Haley

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Every once in a while we bring up the topic of gratitude and I know when we do a good percentage of you zone out. Be honest, when you’re feeling down it’s extremely annoying to have some lady-blogger tell you to be grateful. Sorry I'm not sorry.

You know how when you decide someone is annoying; all of a sudden everything they do is simply horrendous? Well the same downward spiral sometimes occurs when you’re having a bad day, feeling down on your luck, or having a moment of self-doubt. Once you start driving down the road of negativity, emotions like anxiety, anger, guilt, shame and loneliness cram in the back seat and fog up all your windows.

It is this precisely miserable moment that we suggest you hit the brakes and start searching for the positive.  By doing so you stop the negative thinking (at least temporarily) and take stock of what is good and positive in your life and the resources available to you. Perhaps you won’t feel immediately better, but you might at least move the gauge from ‘everything is awful’ to ‘I guess it could be worse’.

Whether you merely make mental notes or decide to start a daily gratitude journal, finding things to be grateful about is one of the simplest, easiest and most inexpensive coping sills you can try. What have you got to lose?  For newbies looking for a little more information you may want to start with this practical and unpretentious guide to gratitude.

Anyway if we can do it, you can do it. We know exactly what it’s like to be annoyed by talk of a silver lining because we’re actually pretty cynical people. We’re wretched really, which is why we love coming up with all sorts of plans and approaches that force us into finding gratitude.

The "Yes, and…" approach to gratitude

This year we decided to take a page from the improv comedy world and apply a few of their rules to the practice of finding gratitude.  These are the 4 rules laid our by Tina Fey aka my hero. If you Google 'Tina Fey's rules of improv' you'll find they're being applied all over the internet to all sorts of subject matter.  Full disclosure, I have no idea if anyone else has ever applied the rules of improv to gratitude.  If so, great minds, you know?  I will however point out that there's a group called Healing Improv who use improv to cope with grief and difficult emotion.

We like using this approach specifically for gratitude and here's why:

1.  It allows you to acknowledge and accept the negative.

2.  It helps you see the negative as an opportunity for something positive or different and engages you in creating a solution.

3.  It asks you to create or identify a positive or different outcome, instead of asking you to merely find things that already exist to be grateful for.

The concepts are simple enough, but this actually takes a little practice to get used to.  This is especially true if your already feeling pessimistic or cynical because it requires you to open your mind to new possibilities.  Here are the rules:

1.  Say 'Yes'.

Acknowledge what it is that's bothering you.  Whether your experiencing a negative feeling or an actual stressor, it's real to you and should be respected as such.

Yes, I am angry.  

Yes, that man just stole my hat.  

Yes, my kids listen to the television incredibly loud.  

Owning up to the things will likely be the easiest part of the exercise; it is for me at least.  But for those of you who tend towards 'It's fine' or 'I'm fine' when you're really not, look at it this way; if you don't acknowledge what's upsetting you, you can never take the next step to fix it, change it or turn it into something better.

2.  Say 'Yes, and...'

Not 'Yes, BUT…'; always 'Yes, AND…'.   Using the word 'but' either works to contradict the statement or it justifies the negative and encourages you to accept it and leave it be.  Using the word 'and' on the other hand encourages you to add something like a new possibility, a next step, or a new way of looking at the situation.

3.  Make statements.

Make statements.  Don't ask questions; don't waste your time looking for all the obstacles; and don't sit around saying why it's not important or doesn't matter. Instead, look for solutions and answers and be open to all ideas and possibilities.  If you're frustratingly indecisive like me, I find this part especially helpful.

Maybe it's the possibility of a future outcome...

'Yes, it's getting cold AND that means it could snow'

Maybe it's what you need to get away from the stressor...

'Yes, I've listened to my kids bicker all morning AND this gives me an excuse to have alone time in a hot bath.'

'Yes, I overcooked the chicken AND this means we get to have pancakes for dinner!'

Maybe it's a totally made up scenario that makes you chuckle in the face of something negative….

'Yes, that man was very rude to me AND now because of karma I imagine he'll go step in a puddle and walk around with wet socks all day.'

4.  There are no mistakes

There are no mistakes, only opportunities.  Which I guess in this context basically means wherever you end up decide to own it, follow through with it, enjoy it and live it.

Alright folks, this method of gratitude takes practice but we think you can do it.  Remember, be open to all possibilities even if they're far fetched, silly, or something you'd never considered before.  Get creative!

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19 Comments on "The 'Yes, and...' approach to gratitude"

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  1. Vicki  August 21, 2016 at 5:37 pm Reply

    It isn’t working for me right now. I’ve been writing gratitudes so long that all my reasons to be thankful are the same thing. I’m always grateful for my daughter and for life and the other things I’ve written. Unfortunately I’ve been being attacked by trolls en masse, and it’s around the anniversary of when it happened and what happened was horrific, which I was forced to watch as it occurred.
    Before last year I hardly ever met trolls who were also vicious misogynists. It’s really difficult to block, delete and simply ignore being talked to in the utterly disgusting way they’ve talked to me.
    Eric, the person in my life who died, couldn’t stand bullies of any kind and confronted almost every one of them. But he did it face to face. He died before Internet bullying became almost like the norm. Some people IMO, which admittedly is certainly not a humble view, shouldn’t even be allowed to talk online if they’re going to act like animals.
    I came here because it’s never happened to me here. Also, I’ll have to search for articles on how to handle an “anniversary” of the death. I like to call it a ‘tragi-versary’ because it feels more like that than an anniversary, which has associations with goodness.
    The only thing I can think to be grateful for right now is the September 11 Memorial & Museum, because they have opportunities for family members to remember loved ones as people instead of the thing that happened to them. In the section where you look at photos of the people who died you can choose a name, read more about who the person was and see extra pictures. They’re usually photos of the person with his and her family and are from the last outing the family spent together or is one of the family’s favorite photos.
    Most people are associating the people who died with what happened to them because that’s the only way they can do it when they don’t know anyone who died. The part of the museum that shows pictures of them also allows you to hear more about who they were as people. I think that’s a wonderful idea.

  2. Kay Pemberton  August 17, 2016 at 10:57 pm Reply


  3. Delores Liesner  May 11, 2016 at 11:41 pm Reply

    I too am still grieving the sudden loss of our daughter (from taking ibuprofen monthly). It seems such a preventable thing. Anyway, I heard a scottish fellow say about his friend who died too soon, “Whenever I think of him, I have a wee party in my heart.” That is my focus now (as praise was our daughter’s) – to celebrate (think of, remember, be grateful) that I had such a daughter and best friend.

  4. marlene  November 18, 2014 at 9:41 pm Reply

    I have gratitude and I am thankful that I have found this website! I am so thankful for so many things!!! I have a family and they have their health. Everyday, I have a long list of things to be gratful for. I count my blessings and it helps me to realize that there is good in this world even when I am hurting or when someone close to me is dying.

  5. Marlene  November 18, 2014 at 9:33 pm Reply

    My grief is the recent and sudden decling illness that my brother in law is going through. Hes decliing quickly and unfortunately my husband, his brother, is not coping so well. I am a Hospice nurse and Im trying to help my husband with the grief and anticipatory anxiety. I find that I cant. My husband is grieivng for his brother but I see that I am grieving too. I have just realized this week that I cannot be a Hospice nurse for my husband. What I need to be is a wife… a loving and comforting wife who is also grieving. That is why I am here posting on this website. I need support too. My brother in law is family to me and Im hurting too. Every time my phone rings, I literally jump! Is it a Hospice patient calling or their family or is it my brother in law or his wife calling to give me more bad news? My anxiety goes through the roof when my cell phone rings. Although I maybe verse in the end of life subject, I cannot expect that I would be free of the pain and anxiety just by talking to myself on a subject I know well. I need to reach out to others who can give me fresh ideas or who can just listen to me. I have always been the one to help and support. Now I know that I need it as as much as the next person who is also grieving.

    • Eleanor  November 19, 2014 at 9:01 am Reply


      Oh I’m so sorry for your bother-in-law, your husband, and your pain. I can really relate to how difficult it is to switch out of that supportive mode and recognize your own needs. I’m impressed that you’ve been able to step back and identify this shift that you need to make when it comes to a terminal illness in the family. As I’m sure you know, many people never make it to this point and then never really take time to get the care for their own grief. Thanks for your perspective. I think this topic is one that maybe needs a little further examination because I’m sure many people can relate. We’re here for you in any way possible.


  6. Beth Marshall  November 15, 2014 at 6:15 pm Reply

    I love this “yes, and…” approach to expressing gratitude. And any reference to the wisdom of Tina Fey makes me smile. Thank you, Eleanor! I appreciate the excellent practical ideas you, Litsa and What’s Your Grief bring to hurting people.

  7. D. Johnson  November 14, 2014 at 12:27 pm Reply

    Whenever I try to do this exercise I see exactly how manipulated I was. Example: I am a broken wreck and I have a bed for the night. (There are better examples, just can’t think of them right now.) When is it NOT ok to be satisfied with scraps?

    • Litsa  November 14, 2014 at 3:14 pm Reply

      D, I am not sure I fully understand the manipulation piece, so forgive me if this reply misses the mark. I think it is important to remember that the gratitude we find is not something that is always (or even often) going to balance the pain and wreckage of grief. It is always okay, and important, to sit with the pain of our loss- not to avoid, transform, find gratitude, etc–but just to acknowledge the pain and slowly but surely, one day at a time (heck, one minute at a time!) to find a way to put one foot in front of the other. The ‘scraps’ are not what you should be satisfied with, but gratitudes are instead a small way to shift our thinking; one tiny tool among many that may (or may not!) help as we trudge forward after a loss. It isn’t what will magically transform us from our broken wreckage, but will subtly retrain our thinking in a way that can support all the other tools that will help us rebuild.

      • D. Johnson  November 14, 2014 at 3:36 pm

        Yes, and I REALLY need those tools right now. I cannot seem to stop my negative thinking! Getting older can suck– friends, money and good health have all fled. Prospects are few or non-existent. I rebounded from a major loss, but now I feel emotionally exhausted after smaller (constant!) subsequent losses. Something needs to change so I thought I’d start with my thinking. [The manipulation part comes from my past where I was abused but told to be grateful it was not worse. That has transmuted into settling for living chronically homeless, grateful to be indoors in the winter and fed. A tragic loss of a bright human being, but, factually, it could be worse.] I love what you explained about the difference between “and” and “but”!

      • z  November 15, 2014 at 5:58 pm

        D. Johnson…I have perhaps a little understanding of where you are. One thing that helped me was when I realized that if I cannot stop negative thinking, or cannot manage to effect whatever change I want to make or think I “should” make, it is not my failing. Not my failure. Not my fault. Doesn’t mean I am a loser. Simply means that this is not something that is going to happen right now. We do not have control over whether or not something that we want to change will change. We can try all kinds of things, and sometimes things change, and sometimes it appears that something we did actually made the change happen. But actually, absolutely everything that happens or does not happen is a result of billions of factors, none of which are under our control. When I realized this, I stopped feeling like a failure in my life and came to see myself as simply a movement of the stream of life force, as is everything else, and this was helpful to me. I hope that it may be for you as well. –z

      • D. Johnson  November 15, 2014 at 7:49 pm

        Thanks, z.

  8. Daisy  November 13, 2014 at 7:02 pm Reply

    Hi Z, I was speaking for myself when I spoke about being ready. It was a practise that worked for me “before”, so I hoped it would be helpful again.

    I agree with you that everyone is individual, that what works for one doesn’t necessarily mean it helps all.

  9. Daisy  November 13, 2014 at 6:25 pm Reply

    As a recent widow, gratitude was not something that seems helpful initially, in fact I would probably have mentally given anyone who suggested it to me a slap across the face. But I’m now able to practise gratitude again and am starting to feel lighter as a result. For a grieving person, I guess it comes down to being ready.

    • Z  November 13, 2014 at 6:37 pm Reply

      Maybe it is not so much “being ready” as it is a matter of whether or not practicing gratitude is something that helps that individual at all. My loss is not all that recent, and as I said in my comment above I tend habitually to notice things I am grateful for, but the practice doesn’t in any way help me to feel better, or less in grief, or less depressed long term. So, just sayin’, just like everything else, it may help a person and it may not. I simply think it is important always to mention, no matter what kind of practice or technique or idea you are putting forth, that what may help one person will not necessarily help another person. I appreciate that Eleanor says above that it CAN be helpful, not that it will. Too often those who are grieving end up feeling even worse because the things that people are going around saying *will* make them feel “better” do not make them feel better. It is important to qualify it by making sure that it is said that everyone does grief differently and there is no right or wrong way to do it, and you are not a failure if you do not feel “better”, or if the techniques that some people say helped them simply do not work that way for you.

      • Eleanor  November 13, 2014 at 8:43 pm

        You’re totally right – it’s impossible to compare grief and grievers and thus it’s impossible to compare coping. One of the myths we work tirelessly to bust is that there is any one size fits all approach to coping. We all have to find what works for us and, as someone who is a little weird in her coping, I can think of many things that work for others that don’t work for me and vice versa. Thank you so much for your insight

    • Eleanor  November 13, 2014 at 8:41 pm Reply

      I think it comes down to a great many things – the person, the timing. I personally would NEVER have thought practicing gratitude would work for me, and really it’s a small thing, but every little bit helps in grief! Thanks for your comment.

  10. Z  November 13, 2014 at 3:42 pm Reply

    Gratitude is a good thing. I have made a practice of being grateful for things all my life, so that now it is a habit, and continues daily even though I am in grief and depression. And I do it just exactly as you have written about, saying “yes *this* I do not like…..and I am grateful for *that*”.
    But being grateful for things does not, in my experience, do anything one way or the other about grief; has no impact on it. Certainly doesn’t make it any better. So as a thing to do, just in general, I agree that it has value. Not so sure it has any value with regard to grieving. Perhaps for some it does, but certainly not for all. I would not ever suggest it to someone who is in grief. Just my opinion.

    • Eleanor  November 13, 2014 at 4:40 pm Reply

      Thank you for your comment. I think I understand what you mean; if someone we’re to say to me ‘my mother has died and I am really struggling with my grief’ one of the last things I would say is ‘Have you tried finding things to be grateful for?’. But there are many experiences associated with grief such as loneliness, isolation and the feeling that nothing good exists where I do think using gratitude as a coping skill can be helpful. As you may have experienced, grief lasts for a long time and changes shape over and over while people learn to deal with their loss and all the secondary losses and adjustments that come with it. As such, one needs a whole tool box full of coping skills to deal with grief and gratitude is just one that may be appropriate depending on the situation and the griever. I am so sorry for your loss and your pain and again, thank you for taking the time to comment.

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