The Healing Power of Gratitude
By Mary B. O’Malley, MD, PhD - Published in the Berkshire Eagle, November 23, 2015
The Thanksgiving holiday was created by Abraham Lincoln in 1863 in the midst of civil war, with hopes to restore "the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union" in the United States. It is a great opportunity that as a nation, we are encouraged to rest and reflect on what we feel thankful for.
There is probably a lot that is going well in your life. But no life is perfect. Amid moments of happiness and success come problems, too, and this is where some of us tend to focus. Dwelling on uncertainty, loss, shame or conflict and can take over our hearts and minds, tempering happiness with feelings of disappointment, anxiety and fear. If we stay with these emotions long enough, we can get stuck there, living a life that is colored more by pessimism and anger than hope and happiness. Research in the science of positive psychology demonstrates that feelings of sincere thanks for even small things can shift our brain chemistry, automatically lowering anxiety levels to help us cope better with stress, build stronger relationships, decreases symptoms of physical illness and deepen sleep.
Like all good habits, deliberately experiencing the healing power of gratitude takes practice. Put aside a few quiet moments of every day for the following exercise:
First, just breathe for a minute, imagining that you are simply floating in a space that is emotionally and mentally neutral. Then, turn your attention to something big or small for which you are thankful. It could be a moment when you paused to step outside to enjoy time in nature, or some good thing in your big picture, such as friends who care about you, a home, or a feeling of purpose. Sink into the moment and let yourself feel fully grateful for this moment, thing or person you are acknowledging. You might notice your body relaxes a bit as you enjoy the heart glow of giving thanks. As you rest in that feeling, see what else comes to mind that you are grateful for. You can continue this inventory for as long as you like, but changes in how you think and feel will show up in just a few minutes. Some people make this exercise their daily practice, and keep a “gratitude list” of what comes to mind as a way to positively orient their day.
Focusing on something that is going well disrupts our preoccupation with what is hard. We can and do still feel our losses and sadness, our anger or shame, but including gratitude elevates us to a more positive place. It enables us to bring our better selves to the next moments of our lives and can influence the rest of the day.
When we offer thanks, we remember that we are part of something more than ourselves. We are collectively interdependent on each other and the Earth. As the psychologist Dr. Robert Emmons has said, “We all begin life dependent on others, and most of us end life dependent on others…throughout life we are profoundly dependent on other people. Gratitude is the truest approach to life….Life is about giving, receiving and repaying.”
It is part of our family tradition to take a few moments before the evening meal to each share something we feel grateful for that day. At Thanksgiving dinner we expand that practice to express our thanks for family and friends who have joined us---or left us---and for the gifts of that year. To maximize our physical and mental health, we should all do this every day. Gratitude is a powerful healer, reminding us of our connection to each other, and the gifts in life that keep our hearts singing. Happy Thanksgiving!
Mary B. O’Malley, MD, PhD is the Medical Director of the Consultation-Liaison Service for the Department of Psychiatry at Berkshire Medical Center.