Rx for the Holidays: Cultivate Gratitude

Nov 1, 2012

Thanksgiving kicks off the holiday season, and with it, festive times with friends and family. However, for those living with chronic disease and illness, unrealistic expectations, difficulties with travel, and busy schedules can add up to increased pain and fatigue, which takes not only a physical toll but an emotional toll as well. Fortunately, one aspect of the Thanksgiving holiday can actually improve your physical, emotional, and mental health — an “attitude of gratitude.”

A growing body of research suggests that cultivating gratitude can lead to better overall health, less anxiety and depression, higher long-term satisfaction with life, and even boost your love life. According to Robert Emmons—editor in chief of the Journal of Positive Psychology, grateful thinking can also increase you happiness by as much as 25 percent, while keeping a gratitude journal for as little as three weeks can increase your energy and result in better sleep.

While no one is suggesting you deny or minimize the challenges you face daily living with chronic pain and disease, you can improve your health for focusing on the good things in your life rather than the bad.

Consider Ann Voskamp, author of One Thousand Gifts: A Dare to Live Fully Right Where You Are. As a child, she and her mother watched as a truck crushed her sister. Consequently, her mother, diagnosed with split personality disorder, checked herself into a psychiatric ward. As an adult, she watched her brother-in-law bury his first two sons. Voskamp transformed her pain with gratitude.

And so can you.

Improve Your Health with Thankfulness

Here are a few suggestions to help you get started:

  • Start a gratitude journal. This is probably the quickest, easiest way to increase your gratitude. What’s more, it need not take a lot of time. If you are not the journaling type, make a list instead, writing down three to five things you are grateful for each day. Keep your journal where you will see it daily — perhaps near the coffeemaker or refrigerator. The important thing is to begin to pay attention to gratitude-inspiring events, both big and small. If writing is not for you, try a visual journal. If you have smartphone, download the One Thousand Gifts app, and capture each day’s gifts using the camera on your phone.
  • Use visual reminders to celebrate life’s simple pleasures.  Recently, my husband and I traveled to Shenandoah National Park to hike some of the trails. The pain and the fatigue of my rheumatoid arthritis make hiking difficult, so we hiked only the easiest of trails. Before starting our first hike of the day, I bought a wooden walking stick in a local gift shop because balance is sometimes a problem for me when I am in pain. Our weekend was a wonderful, and I was surprised at how far I was able to hike. After we got home, I decided to display my walking stick on my office wall — a visual reminder of what I accomplished that day
  • Express gratitude and thanks for and to others. If you find it difficult to find things in your own life to be grateful for, express gratitude to others for the gift they are to you. Write a letter to a friend or relative, thanking them for the positive impact they have had on your life. Thank the barista for your morning coffee, your spouse for taking out the trash, or your children for remembering to call.
  • Try the “It’s a Wonderful Life” approach. Imagine what your life would be like without your spouse, a job, or a hobby. Picture what the lives of those you love would be like without you. Consider the impact you have on your children and grandchildren, the difference your support makes to your spouse, and the contributions you have made to your workplace or community. When you stop to think about it, the impact you have had on others is sometimes surprising.

Gratitude will not eliminate your pain or cure your disease, but it will certainly improve the quality of your life — and your health.