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Why it pays to be more grateful and how to show it

What are you grateful for?

According to Cicero, gratitude is more than being “the greatest virtue,” he described it as “the mother of all other remaining virtues.”

Gratitude. This isn’t about remembering to write your Christmas thank you letter to Aunty Mabel who sent you that hideous pair of socks or thanking your Mother-in-law for the huge dish of soggy overcooked Brussels sprouts that just got put on your plate at a family get-together.

This is about real gratitude that is authentic and heartfelt.  Why that matters is because showing gratitude has been shown to dramatically ramp up your level of mental wellbeing. It’s been described as an essential component for employee engagement, and it has a positive effect on your physical health and resilience.

In fact, there’s so much going for gratitude it’s hard to find a reason why you wouldn’t want to include more gratitude in your life.

 

Gratitude boosts recovery

As we move into the new Living with Covid Era, I’ve heard 2021 described as the year of recovery. Recovery from all our adversity, financial insecurity, economic downturn and mental health challenges. While I believe it’s going to take somewhat longer than one year, gratitude is an important part of our wellbeing armoury for recovery, helping us to distinguish between what is important and what is not, to stay focused on what is possible and to strengthen our patience, humility and wisdom, which has been wearing a little thin.

For patients recovering from heart attack or other cardiac illness, the more grateful patients were found to have better sleep, less fatigue and lower levels of inflammation in their recovery phase, meaning they recovered well. While in the GRACE study, researchers found that the most grateful patients were more energised, engaged, proactive in their own health care and motivated to make the necessary long term behavioural changes to stay well.

Breast cancer accounts for around 25% of cancers experienced by women. When my Mum lost her best friend to breast cancer while still in her forties, it took her a long time to recover from that loss. As a GP and in my own circle of friends, I’ve known many who have endured the trauma of being diagnosed with the disease and then undertaking the long road to recovery with chemotherapy and surgery.

But surviving that is only half the story. What then remains is the ongoing fear of recurrence and possible death. This is where gratitude interventions have been found to produce a positive effect in improved psychological functioning, better coping and greater perceived support.

 

Gratitude is linked to wellbeing

I started keeping a gratitude journal over 15 years ago. Every evening before turning the lights out, I would write down 3-5 things I was grateful for and why. At first, there were quite a few days where I struggled to think of what to write. Then there were those days where I’d had a particularly bad hair day and couldn’t think of one thing to be grateful for.

But gradually over time, things changed. It began to feel easier to write down those things and sometimes there was a whole flood of items. I also found myself glancing back at different entries at different times and would smile at the positive remembrances.

I noticed I had fewer bad hair days. I was aware I had changed in my demeanour. I was less judgemental, more curious and more tolerant when things didn’t turn out as expected and less self-critical. A gentler, less intense and happier person emerged.

In his book The Happiness Advantage, Shawn Achor writes about the research that shows how keeping a gratitude journal for 21 days can lead to a raised level of optimism for six months. Now that has to be a good return on investment. 

 

Gratitude builds resilience

Being able to see and appreciate the positives when going through difficult or challenging times helps to build coping skills and your resilience to handle stress more effectively. Strengthening those neural circuits with your gratitude practice elevates physical and mental wellbeing and happiness. While it can feel hard to pause and focus on the good when feeling downhearted or depressed, nudging yourself to do so, using cognitive reappraisal to feel grateful in some small way can lead to better self-control, broaden perspective and nurture hope.

 

Gratitude builds connection

The one thing that matters above all else for a happy and successful life is the quality and closeness of your closest relationships. When you’re grateful to others for what they’ve said or done, you create stronger social bonds. Feeling connected to others builds that sense of belonging and safety.

 

Practicing an attitude of gratitude

1. Keep a gratitude journal

Or a gratitude jar. Write down three to five things you are grateful for each day in a journal or on “Post It” notes and pop them in a clear glass jar to remind yourself of just how many things you have gratitude for.

 

2. Write a gratitude letter

Is there someone who has had a significant impact on your life, that you’ve never really had the opportunity to thank properly? Now is your chance. Write them a letter saying why you hold such gratitude for what they did or said and how it has impacted your life in a good way. If possible, take the letter to them and read it to them out loud. If not pop it in the mail or phone them and read it to them that way.

 

3. Set the intention

Each day, begin with the intention to notice those things you are grateful for, acknowledge them and share your appreciation.

 

4. Say thank you more often (and mean it)

If you’ve been taking someone for granted, tell them you’re grateful and show them you care with a small gift, buying them a cup of coffee or showing your appreciation in some other way. You’re not looking for reward or reciprocity, just an opportunity to say thanks.

 

5. Savour your world

This is about getting out into nature preferably into a green or blue space and pausing to appreciate the full experience. Savouring is about extracting more positive emotion using your senses such as feeling the ground beneath your feet, noticing the warmth of the sunshine on your skin, hearing the wind blow through the trees, smelling the scents of different flowers or tasting the salt in the sea spray from the ocean.

 

Gratitude is good. It’s costs us nothing except our time and can help you to feel better about yourself and your situation.

We are living in extraordinary times where grief, loss and heartache have dominated. Tapping into what you can be grateful for will help you be best prepared for whatever the future might bring and get you ready to thrive in the new normal.

 

Dr Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner and board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, keynote speaker and best-selling author. Her new book Thriving Mind: How to Cultivate a Good Life (Wiley) is now available for purchase.

If psychological safety, resilience and mental wellbeing is something you’d like to find out more about, please contact me to set up a time for a chat.

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