Health & Wellness: Embracing the greatness of gratitude
Special to the Bonanza
Another year has come and gone, and with it, the hope for change and renewal for the next year. It is often a time when we make New Year’s resolutions.
As a psychiatrist, I’ve heard them all, from competing in the Ironman to having a better relationship with our mothers; everyone is wanting fulfillment and a sense of wellbeing.
But studies show the majority of people abandon their resolutions within weeks. Change is hard. Maybe we’re focusing on the wrong things?
Many of us feel that happiness or well-being is fleeting or something that happens to us. In other words, happiness is dependent on our circumstances.
Given this, no wonder there is an epidemic of depression and anxiety — even when things are going well, we fear the potential of losing it all, and with it, the uncertain relationship we have with happiness.
Is there a way to truly experience happiness, peace and lasting fulfillment?
There has been an explosion of research lately on the subject of gratitude.
The Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley, is running the Gratitude Project. Masters degrees in Positive Psychology are now offered at the University of Pennsylvania.
Research shows that cultivating a mental attitude of gratefulness is associated with stronger immune systems, decreased blood pressure, increased social connectedness and feelings of joy.
Kids at age 10 who were more grateful than their peers, four years later at age 14 engaged in more prosocial activities, had better social skills, were more generous and wanted to give back to their communities.
And when we share our gratitude with others, we experience particular benefit — increased energy, optimism and empathy.
But what is gratitude, really? Is it writing in a journal about the top five things that happened to us that day? Or is it thinking nice thoughts and expecting good things?
And how do we attain gratitude? When we really think about it, true gratitude is embracing what exists now. It’s not leveraging our happiness on some future goal. It’s being grateful for the mundane and seeing it in a new light every day.
That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t strive to make the world a better place, or better ourselves as human beings — in a sense that is the art of happiness. But gratitude requires a genuine examination of our life as it is and then finding the things we can truly value.
I once had a conversation with a social worker friend. She was bemoaning her long work hours, poor pay and an inflexible bureaucracy.
As our conversation continued, she had forgotten that even in small ways — like giving a reassuring hug to a child who had just been removed from his family — she was contributing to the relief of human suffering.
Suddenly there was a shift in her perspective — and perspective is powerful. She then had the opportunity to focus on the incredible responsibility and humbling experiences that were at her job’s essence: what she could accomplish, rather than the obstacles she faced every day.
Although the negative realities of her job did not change, she was now able to experience meaning. When we experience meaning, we feel gratitude, and from gratitude springs true happiness.
Reality is that it’s not easy being grateful. Maintaining a grateful attitude for the things in our lives, even the things that might be painful, takes hard work and perseverance — a daily rendering of our existence.
A study was done on patients with terminal neuromuscular diagnoses — their prognoses were not good. But the researchers challenged them to find something valuable in their current experience.
For those who could, every single patient in the study experienced decreased anxiety, depression and a greater sense of purpose and meaning.
Finding meaning, even in suffering, is particularly important if we are to experience gratitude … because no one escapes suffering.
Leonard Cohen once wrote with beautiful simplicity:
“Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a c rack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.”
I wish for you a year filled with gratitude and the lightness of true happiness.
P.S. If you want to experience increased happiness and fulfillment lasting an entire month, then do this simple exercise: Write a gratitude letter. Detail the kindnesses of someone you’ve never thanked. Make an appointment and read the letter aloud to that person. You will be surprised by your response.
Kristin Hestdalen, M.D., is a board-certified child psychiatrist who practices at Tahoe Family Solutions, A Child’s World and Sierra Mental Health Associates.
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