Written by Dr. Moe Gelbart, Director of Behavioral Health
As we begin to get ready to close out the most difficult year of our lifetimes, we will most likely reflect on the people and things we have lost, and the events we have missed out on. It is important not to forget, as embracing our realities make us stronger, more resilient, and more prepared for the future. I’d like to focus on another area we can all give thought to, an area which research has clearly shown is related to building personal resilience, and achieving and improving happiness. The end of 2020 is a perfect time to incorporate gratitude as a way to ring in 2021, and all that it promises.
Gratitude involves being cognizant of, thankful for, and showing appreciation for what we have. It is not only a “feel good” idea, but is backed by significant research to prove its effectiveness. In one study, Dr. Robert Emmons, PhD (UC Davis) and Dr. Michael E. McCullough, PhD (University of Miami) who have done much of the research on gratitude, asked participants in three groups to write several sentences each week on a particular topic. One group wrote about things they were grateful for, another group wrote about things that were irritable or displeased them, and the third group wrote about events of the week. Overwhelmingly, after ten weeks, the group that wrote about gratitude were more optimistic, felt better about their lives, exercised more, and had fewer visits to the doctor than the group that focused on their grievances. There are clear emotional, social, personality, career, and health benefits. There are also distinct exercises one can practice regularly to create an attitude of gratitude and reap its benefits.
Emotional Benefits: Allowing ourselves to focus on the things we are grateful for increases happiness by more than 10%; improves self-esteem and self-confidence; reduces depression and anxiety and suicidal ideation; and allows us to have richer, deeper, and more meaningful relationships. It is also a foundation for developing and improving resilience, which allows us to cope better with difficulties in our lives.
Health Benefits: Practicing gratitude shows to decrease subjective feelings of aches and pains; improves sleep; decreases blood pressure; is more likely to lead to a regular exercise program.
Career Benefits: The benefits of gratitude transfer to our work environments. Research indicates benefits in decision making; improved leadership abilities; higher degree of work satisfaction; lower burnout and turnover.
Resilience benefits: Focusing on those things we are grateful for reduces our stress; helps us make better choices; help cope with trauma in our lives; improves self-esteem; makes us more optimistic.
The value of practicing gratitude in our lives is clearly documented in research. There are many practical exercises we can engage in to improve and increase our awareness. Here are a few:
- Each evening, write down three things for which you are grateful for that day. Writing is important, because it not only provides you with a record of your thoughts, but the act of writing makes the experience more tangible rather than just be fleeting thoughts.
- During family dinners, go around the table and have each person discuss what they are thankful for, and for something specific that happened in the day that they appreciate. I can tell you from personal experience, that even a two-year old can partake in this with joy. Acknowledge and reinforce everyone for their contributions.
- Be kind to yourself. If you have had a particularly difficult day, and finding positives is difficult, then reflect on past events you are grateful for, and your hopes for the future. Remember, the things you are grateful for do not have to be big things, but can be as simple as you had food to eat, or you talked to a caring friend. Appreciate every good thing in life, not only the big things.
- Keep a gratitude journal. Include your daily gratitude lists, as well as reflections on events which happen to you.
- Express your gratitude to others. Letting someone know that you are appreciative or thankful for them, or for something that they have done for you, actually improves your happiness by up to 20%, according to studies. Managers who remember to say “thank you” improve employee satisfaction and motivation. You can do this in person, by phone, or by writing a note.
- Create a gratitude box. Chose a box, and creatively make it special for yourself. Record good things that have happened to you on small pieces of paper, and place them in the box. Once again, it does not have to be anything major, but something which triggered a sense of thankfulness inside of yourself. On special days, like your birthday, New Year’s Eve, etc, open the box and read all the great things that you have experienced in a year.
- Things you take for granted. Imagine yourself losing the things in your life you take for granted, such as your partner, your home, your health, and feel what your life would be like. Allow yourself to realize that these things are not gone, and how grateful you are for each. Similarly, think about things which you have experienced that are traumatic, negative, or painful. Reflect on how you have coped, how you have come through those things, and what you have learned about yourself that has made you a stronger person.
As I mentioned at the beginning, this has been the most difficult year many of us have ever experienced. If we allow ourselves to look, however, there is much to be grateful for, and much we have taken for granted in the past. We can be grateful for our great doctors, nurses, and healthcare team which has shown such dedication and caring; for our friends and families and the (zoom) time spent with them; for our friends and neighbors who have demonstrated their giving spirit; and for much, much more. Remember, we don’t practice gratitude because we live happy lives, we live happy lives because we practice gratitude.