The Healing Powers Of Gratitude

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Dr Ottilia Brown

The Healing Powers Of Gratitude

Posted 05 May 2019

Mind & Body Health

Dr. Ottilia Brown

The Healing Powers Of Gratitude

‘Wear gratitude like a cloak and it will feed every corner of your life’ - Rumi

A dear old friend and I met for dinner at a beautiful restaurant in Dubai. We found ourselves reflecting on how amazing it was that we could be there together and enjoy something so spectacular, especially given the life struggles we had both experienced. My being filled with an intense feeling of gratitude. I then thought how easy it is to feel this way when things are going well. Instantly I was transported back to one of the darkest periods in my life... I remembered that the most powerful thing that got me through that awful time was gratitude. In those dark days the simplest things brought me to a place of gratitude. Things that I had taken for granted previously, like my senses and mobility, suddenly brought me relief from my distress.

Gratitude is increasingly featuring as a powerful practice that can have a profound positive effect on health. What is gratitude? Various definitions reveal that it is an appreciation for gifts received or altruistic acts done to self by others, and that it is a felt emotional response that may result in wellbeing and a sense of connection with something beyond just the self. The former requires there to be a perception that the gifts or acts are valuable. Hence it would follow that a gratitude practice would include a cognitive component of reflecting on the gift and/or act and an emotional component of feeling appreciation. This could then be extended into an act of expressing gratitude and/or reciprocating with an action. However, the latter is not a requirement for gratitude as it is not about repaying someone; rather it is an act born out of the emotional experience that may inspire an individual to reciprocate.

  • Gratitude has been espoused as a virtue that makes life better for self and others. Dr Robert Emmons, a prominent researcher in the field of gratitude talks about the effects of gratitude on life.
  • Gratitude allows the celebration of the present. Human beings need novelty to keep experiencing positive emotions. As the novelty of something new wears off, such as a new pet, or a new job, the positive feelings initially associated with the new event diminishes. Gratitude thus is the appreciation of the value of something thus helping us to extract more benefits for a longer period of time.
  • Gratitude blocks negative emotions. Dr Emmons specifically highlights envy, resentment, regret and depression… And if we just focused on the positive effects on depression, there are studies showing that gratitude can reduce depressive symptoms, reduce the duration of depressive episodes and lower the chances of future episodes. Research also shows that gratitude can reduce feelings of loneliness.
  • Grateful people are more stress-resilient. Research indicates that people who are grateful before stressful events are less likely to develop post-traumatic stress and anxiety in response to traumatic life events. Gratitude does this by providing a framework for interpreting stressful life events.
  • Gratitude strengthens social ties and self-worth. It fosters social support and helps one seek out people that are open to being kind to us. Conversely, the act of doing for someone and receiving gratitude enhances self-worth.
  • Gratitude has a positive effect on our physical wellbeing. Research highlights that those practising gratitude sleep longer and have better quality sleep. Improved immune functioning and lower blood pressure have also been associated with practising gratitude.

What are some of the barriers to experiencing gratitude?

  • The need for novelty mentioned earlier could be a barrier to gratitude. Constantly seeking out the next new thing robs us of the opportunity to fully enjoy and value what we already have.
  • Human beings have a negativity bias. We are wired to anticipate the bad and to protect ourselves from impending dangers, thus adding to the challenge of focusing on the good long enough so that there is a substantial experience of gratitude.
  • Dr Emmons talks about entitlement and the growing problem of narcissism. When we are entitled, we feel like something is owed to us and thus the ability to appreciate something is hampered.
  • Unforgiveness can be another deterrent. If you recall from my blogs these last couple of months, forgiveness creates space and opportunity for positive experiences.
  • Downward comparison, i.e. the negative comparison of self to others blocks the experience of gratitude as there is then constantly the feeling that what one has is not enough. Add to that a dose of envy and jealousy, and gratitude would not stand a chance.

How can we intensify our gratitude practice?

  1. Check your perspective. It is good to focus on what we have, and it is equally advisable to focus on that which has been successfully avoided or prevented. Sometimes thinking about what life would be like without someone or something can drive home the significance of that person or thing in your life.
  2. Keep a gratitude journal. A physical record makes a more significant impact than just keeping things in your head.
  3. Write a gratitude letter and deliver it personally if possible. Offer to read it to the person you are grateful to. This way you are experiencing gratitude while writing and while reading and you are intensifying the person’s experience of receiving gratitude.
  4. Don’t just make a list, make time for reflection/meditation. Take a moment to really focus on the person or thing and reflect on the details of the source of your gratitude... depth over breath.
  5. Be consistent and do it regularly (1 to 3 times per week). A consistent practice makes it easier to remember gratitude during those stressful or challenging parts of the day.
  6. Be specific. Instead of saying, ‘I am grateful for my home’, rather state why… ‘I am grateful that my home is such a safe place for me that provides me with physical and emotional shelter.’ ‘I am grateful for my job’… ‘I am grateful for my job because it allows me to earn enough money to care for myself and my family and it gives me a sense of purpose.’

As you reach the end of reading this blog, I would like to invite you to choose one thing or person that you are grateful for right now and to just take a moment to reflect and experience that wonderful feeling of gratitude. Take it a step further… if you thought of a person, send them a text or better still, write them a gratitude letter, and experience the exponential benefits of gratitude. Wishing you well always, Ottilia


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4 people have commented this blog.

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Tim says:

7 months 3 days ago
Awesome tips and advice which I'll start to put into practice. Tks alot! Tim
Dr Ottilia Brown

Dr Ottilia Brown says:

7 months 1 day ago
Hi Tim. Thank you for the positive feedback. I'm pleased you found the tips helpful. Wishing you well with your gratitude practise. Warm regards, Ottilia

Derek says:

8 months 2 weeks ago
Aggggghhhh so true; so challenging to do.
Dr Ottilia Brown

Dr Ottilia Brown says:

8 months 1 week ago
Hi Derek, thanks for your comment. Yes can be hard to do but oh so rewarding when you get into the groove of it. Hope the listed tips will help. Take care, Ottilia

Delalia says:

8 months 3 weeks ago
Hello Dr. Brown - what do you advise for those of us like me who try to practice being in a state of gratitude but seem to get every curve ball thrown at me in life for everything, which makes it hard to maintain a positive mindset :(
Dr Ottilia Brown

Dr Ottilia Brown says:

8 months 2 weeks ago
Dear Delalia. Thank you for your comment. I think it is important to discern between practicing gratitude and maintaining a positive mindset. Gratitude can help with achieving the latter, but the two are not synonymous. Practising gratitude as is described in the article offers respite from those nonstop curve balls and also helps with maintaining perspective when so much is going wrong. Often when we are in the midst of a very hard time, it is so difficult to find things that are going well. I found that in the dark time I allude to in the article, sometimes focusing on the simplest things and experiencing a sense of gratitude for things we take for granted daily can offer some relief from the distress. It also helps with building resilience. Wishing you strength with all you are facing. Warm regards, Ottilia

Celestine says:

9 months 3 days ago
Dear Otillia, I'm a fan of your posts here because they always have great advice, and they always provide tips on how to achieve what you are talking about. I can personally vouch for how a commitment to living with gratitude changed so many things for the better in my life.
Dr Ottilia Brown

Dr Ottilia Brown says:

9 months 1 day ago
Dear Celestine. Thank you so much for your positive feedback. I’m pleased that you too have benefited from living a life of gratitude. Wishing you well as you continue your gratitude practice. Take care, Ottilia

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