Gratitude - the gift you give yourself

“When I started counting my blessings, my whole life turned around.” Willie Nelson

Reflections on gratitude can be found throughout human history in both religion and philosophy. Cicero, the ancient Roman political theorist and philosopher asserted that gratitude was the mother of all virtues, one that may indeed hold the key to happiness. With the daily grind of everyday life, it’s easy to stop paying attention to the things around us. Think for a moment; when was the last time you recognized and acknowledged some of the simpler things in life - a good night’s sleep, the beautiful morning sun, the lighthearted chatter of a child or a gracious smile from a stranger. Noticing things one otherwise might take for granted is the first step in cultivating gratitude.

Aphorisms like ‘count your blessings’, ‘the silver living’ or ‘look on the bright side’ permeate popular culture for a very good reason; it turns out that how one handles life’s challenges can have a profound effect on health and well-being. American psychology professor Robert Emmons, PhD. is considered the foremost expert on gratitude. For the last ten years Emmons and his colleagues have studied the effect of gratitude on health and psychological well-being. In an article published in Greater Good Magazine, Emmons explains the findings of his gratitude research, “We’ve studied more than a thousand people, from ages 8 to 80 and found that people who practice gratitude consistently report a host of benefits.” Those studies confirmed that grateful people are more optimistic, forgiving, outgoing, generous and compassionate.

Emmons’ research also revealed that gratefulness has a positive effect on physical health as it helps counteract the negative effects of stress. Feeling thankful for what you have can help people cope with the stressors of everyday life. “Grateful people also take better care of themselves,” Emmons explained, “they engage in more protective health behaviors like regular exercise, a healthy diet and regular physical examinations.”

Taking that research one step further, a recent brain scanning study published in the NeuroImage journal revealed that practicing gratitude can physically change the brain. Researchers found that participants who completed several gratitude tasks had distinct neural activity in parts of the brain associated with emotion and empathy, suggesting that gratitude itself is a very unique emotion. The study also affirmed that the more one practices gratitude, the more likely the brain will default to that emotion.

The other noteworthy effect that gratitude has on our lives is a profound desire to pay it forward. As Professor Emmons describes, gratitude can be motivating. “Gratitude serves as the link between giving and receiving. It moves recipients to share and increase the very good they have received.” For example, grateful patients often donate time or money to a hospital after life-saving treatment.

I found myself in that situation fifteen years ago after undergoing treatment for cancer. When it was finished, I felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude for everything and everyone – for every nurse who cared for me, for every friend who dropped off a casserole and for every sunset I was lucky enough to witness. I started volunteering to give back and made a commitment to live with gratitude every day. It changed my life in more ways than I could articulate in this blog.

So how does one begin to cultivate gratitude? Let’s look at some easy ways to get started:

Keep a gratitude journal. The journal is simply a way to appreciate what you have rather than what you have not. Emmons suggests writing down 5 things you’re grateful for every week. This practice only takes a few minutes and Emmons said it can help guard against taking things for granted.

Take a moment and think of someone who has made a difference in your life - a former teacher, your best friend or even a co-worker. Consider composing a wonderful thank you note or personal message on social media to let them know how they’ve helped you. Expressing gratitude feels especially good, for both you and the recipient. If you are a former patient like me, consider sharing your story with a hospital foundation so they can spread the good word to the community at large and to the healthcare provider who made the difference. The Victoria General Hospital Foundation has some wonderful, inspiring grateful patient stories on their website. Take a moment to read them here.

Finally, consider the bountiful blessings that come from nature. Actually stop and smell the proverbial roses. Take a moment to appreciate the beauty of a setting sun, listen carefully to a bird’s song, or follow the path of a snowflake as it falls. Better yet, create your own nature bucket list (Hint: the list is endless).

Krystal Stokes is the Communications Manager with Victoria Lifeline, a community service of the Victoria General Hospital Foundation.

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