Health Matters: The Gift of Gratitude

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November 2018

This morning’s chill reminded me to stop and notice the seasonal changes that are upon us. The summer bounty of tomatoes and peppers will soon be replaced by the fall harvested winter squash and walnuts. I’m grateful for these changes and to live in our rural community where I can readily appreciate the beauty that autumn brings. Maybe it’s time to embrace the gift of gratitude.

The human brain is programmed to keep us alive, which is great, but unfortunately, one of the ways it does that is to be on constant alert for threats—to look for ways we may be harmed. It is not programmed, from an evolutionary standpoint, to pay as much attention to the sense of well-being we get out of our relationships and positive experiences. However, by intentionally focusing on gratitude, by shifting our thinking in a positive direction, we may actually be able to change our brains. Studies have shown that simply expressing gratitude may have lasting effects—that practicing gratitude may help train the brain to become more sensitive to the experience of gratitude, and this could contribute to an improved sense of well-being over time.

As the Integrated Care Program Manager at MCHC Health Centers, I work with physical and behavioral health professionals who dedicate their professional lives to helping people improve their health. Our behavioral health professionals meet on a regular basis to share new skills and best practices. Years ago, at one of these meetings, therapist Lauren Wantland, LCSW, mentioned that she had introduced the idea of writing a gratitude list to some of her patients. I  was intrigued by the practice, so I started including a gratitude list as part of my monthly department report. Sometimes I included big things, but usually, it was small, seemingly inconsequential things—a spring rain, a delicious bowl of oatmeal, the greeting from a passerby. The practice of making a gratitude list helped me notice how kind and helpful coworkers were and underscored the good work that happens in subtle and sometimes unacknowledged ways. I like to think that sharing my “work” gratitude list has had a positive influence on others and on our work environment.

While I’ve always been a glass-half-full type of person, this intentional practice of gratitude changed me. I became even more contented. When I faced heartbreak, like losing my sister to an unexpected illness, I balanced my mourning with the positive practice of sharing daily messages with my daughter and niece that included three things we were grateful for.

Focusing on gratitude doesn’t mean ignoring the difficult things in life. It means reframing them, so they become one of many things we think about rather than our central or sole focus. When we practice gratitude intentionally, it forces us to make time to think about the positive side of things. Every month when I write my department report, I have to consider what I will put on the gratitude list; I get to focus on the joyful, positive, and/or hopeful aspect of things.

There’s a growing body of research that shows it is not what happens to people, but how they interpret the experience that determines whether they can bounce back. My 93-year-old father was a German refugee as a young man, making life very hard for him for a period of time. Did he turn into an embittered curmudgeon? No. He tells me that during that time he learned five languages and travelled to different parts of the world, which provided him with a new perspective and enriched his life in so many ways. He is a joyful, resilient person to this day.

I believe that if we practice noticing the things we have to be grateful for, we will be better able to manage the low points in our lives; and become more resilient. Noticing the small and not-so-small things that make life worth living allows us to see the world as a more positive and hopeful place. 

With Thanksgiving right around the corner, I figure this is the perfect time to start practicing gratitude. Consider spending a little extra time thinking about all the things you’re grateful for—relationships, experiences, and opportunities that bring you joy. You could write a letter to thank someone who’s made a difference in your life. You could start a Gratitude Jar in which you put notes about things you’re grateful for and next Thanksgiving, read all the notes. Focusing on the things you appreciate can make the whole world seem brighter.

Karen Rizzolo is the Integrated Care Program Manager at MCHC Health Centers—a local, non-profit, federally qualified health center offering medical, dental and behavioral health care to people in Lake and Mendocino Counties

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