When we think of gratitude, many of us think of it as simply ‘being thankful’. Thankful to someone for what they have done for us. But gratitude is so much more complex than that. Gratitude is about feeling and expressing appreciation for everything we’ve been given and all that we have (big or small).
It’s important to realise that nearly all experiences have both “positive” and “negative” components. The more painful the experience, the harder it can be to find the positives. But there are always positives; you just need to look for them.
An attitude of gratitude means making it a habit to express thankfulness and appreciation on a regular basis. For some people it is a personality trait, meaning that it comes naturally. For others it takes work but with practice everyone can develop an attitude of gratitude. Living with an attitude of gratitude will help you have a healthy, happy life and influence those around you.
Gratitude for me is a personality trait. I believe it was this trait that helped me get through the darkest periods of my life so far. And I managed to get through them with a smile on my face (most of the time).
I want to take a look at 3 aspects of gratitude:
- Acknowledging the goodness in your life
- Showing appreciation to people
- Seeing the best in people.
1. Acknowledging the goodness in your life
The first stage of gratitude is the recognition of the goodness in our lives. This helps us identify everything that makes us who we are.
When I was in hospital and facing life with serious disabilities, I spent a lot of time trying to work out how I could find meaning and purpose. There were times when this didn’t come naturally and it was easy to focus on the things I did not have and the things I could not do. With the help of family and friends, I was able to refocus on what I had.
The more I focused on the blessings in my life, the more obvious they became.
I was surrounded by the love and support of family and friends. I had an amazing husband and 4 precious kids to fight for. They all had clothes on their backs, food in their bellies, a roof over their heads and they were healthy.
My cognitive brain was intact and my personality remained the same. Many people with brain injuries are fundamentally changed. For my children I was in a broken body, but I was still the same person.
When my Aunty Sandra’s son fell off a cliff, he became a paraplegic. He required several surgeries, round the clock care and many months in hospital rehabilitation. After their experience, I can remember Aunty Sandra saying that she would never again complain about paying her taxes. At the time I didn’t fully understand what she was saying.
When I found myself in an Intensive Care Ward, with 1 on 1 nursing care, round the clock medical care, cutting edge diagnostic tests, access to all required medication etc etc, I started to think about how lucky I was to live in Australia. Not only did I have access to first world medical care, but it was free. I got everything I needed and it didn’t cost me a cent. My family didn’t need to lose sleep over how they were going to pay my medical costs.
In the USA, an ICU bed costs between $2000 and $3000 a day. I was in ICU for 9 weeks – that’s 63 days. At $2500 a day, my ICU stay would have cost $157,500. Not to mention the 5 months of inpatient rehabilitation I had next. I have a limited understanding of the US health care system. What I do know is that the poor are looked after, the wealthy can afford good insurance, but the rest of the country are struggling to afford insurance that is comprehensive enough to avoid massive medical bills.
A study done at Harvard University indicates that medical expenses is the biggest cause of bankruptcy in the USA, accounting for 62% of all personal bankruptcies. 78% of filers had some form of health insurance.
To Australians it is beyond comprehension that someone could be made bankrupt by getting medical care for a loved one. The harsh reality is that millions of people around the world, just like us, don’t have access to affordable, quality medical care. Yes our income tax rates are higher than in many countries, but next time you have a sick loved one, think about how heartbreaking it must be to watch them suffer without treatment.
The care I received in hospital was incredible and I was able to reflect on what a privilege that was.
The list goes on. There were times I wallowed in fear and self pity, but my family never let me camp there for long. My life was not perfect, but it was still rich with goodness. I had to focus on all that I had to be thankful for.
2. Showing appreciation
The second stage of gratitude is recognising the source of the goodness in your life. This helps us identify everyone that makes us who we are. Once we identify a person making our lives good, we should take the time to show our gratitude.
When someone performs an act of gratitude for another person, that person is often motivated to do something nice for the same person or someone else. So gratitude is not just an action. It is a positive emotion and it can be contagious. Wouldn’t the world be a nicer place if we could create a perpetual cycle of gratitude and positive energy?
I’ve long been a person that appreciates and acknowledges hard-work and kindness in other people. I realised early in life that negative opinions spread much faster than positive. People seem quick to complain but not so quick to compliment. I made a commitment to myself many years ago, that I would go out of my way to compliment people when they deserved it. If I ate at a cafe or restaurant where a staff member impressed me, either by their knowledge, work ethic or manner, I would make a note of their name, and write a brief letter to the manager expressing my appreciation. I did the same thing with staff in shops, the post man, the man that delivered a skip bin, etc. “Give credit where credit is due” is something I still say often.
During my hospital journey, I was committed to giving thanks to those who cared for me. On the night of my admission, when nobody knew what was happening to me, I was sent for a CT scan with contrast. This required a nurse to inject a dye into my blood. She was so kind, compassionate and gentle. Although I was feeling sick and frightened I took the time to mumble through my locked jaw that she was the sweetest person I’d seen all day and that I appreciated the way she had looked after me. I’ll never know the impact that simple thanks had on her. Maybe it motivated her to continue being kind as she got tired during her shift. And what it did for me was to focus my thoughts in a positive way.
With all my nurses, wardies, doctors, pharmacists, physiotherapists, occupational therapists etc, I would thank them each time they did something for me. If they were kind or gentle I would take the time to let them know. I could only blink at this stage so family had to translate. There were times I was tired but I still saw it as a priority to show gratitude.
One of the nurses in ICU was a new graduate. She was an excellent nurse. One day her supervisor was there to assess her. She was not nursing me that day but I made my Dad go and get the supervisor so that I could let her know how well the nurse had cared for me. It cost me nothing to show my gratitude but may have had a real impact on the nurse.
The gratitude I showed the hospital staff, came back to me ten-fold. If I was asleep when the night-shift nurses went home, some of them would leave me notes to say good-bye. One afternoon in ICU as the afternoon nursing shift took over, 4 nurses from the morning shift stayed back to pamper me. They took me to the shower, washed my hair, shaved my legs and did my toenails. Later in rehab, if nurses had spare time they would sit with me and talk.
I’ve experienced first hand just how contagious gratitude can be and how simply acknowledging acts of kindness and giving thanks, can create an ongoing cycle of happiness.
“Cultivate the habit of being grateful for every good thing that comes to you, and to give thanks continuously. And because all things have contributed to your advancement, you should include all things in your gratitude.”
― Ralph Waldo Emerson
3. Seeing the best in people
“Scientists talk about the brain‘s “negativity bias“; we’re most likely to notice the bad qualities in others rather than the good ones. Unfortunately, if you feel surrounded by lots of bad qualities in others, then you naturally feel less supported, less safe, and less inclined to be generous or pursue your dreams. Plus, in a circular way, when another person gets the feeling that you don’t really see much that’s good in him or her, that person is less likely to take the time to see much that’s good in you. Seeing the good in others is thus a simple but very powerful way to feel happier and more confident, and become more loving and more productive in the world.”
Rick Hanson, Ph.D., neuropsychologist .
Rick Hanson talks about taking the time to see the good intentions in the people around you. In particular, sense the longing to be happy in the heart of every person.
Many years ago, when my eldest son was in year 3, I went on an overnight school excursion as a parent helper. It was a bit of an eye opener to say the least. Many of the kids had never been away from home before and were a little over-excited. As the night went on, I started to lose my patience with a few of the kids. One of the teachers on the camp seemed to always be allocated the class with the more ‘difficult’ children because she seemed to manage them so well. She remained so calm all night, always speaking lovingly to the kids. I, on the other hand, was ready to lose the plot.
I decided to ask Mrs D how she did it. How she managed to stay calm and be so beautiful with the kids in spite of their behaviour. She told me that at the beginning of each school year, she takes the time to find something she loves about each child. No matter how difficult the child, she didn’t stop till she found that thing that made them special to her. “They all have special qualities to love.” In that moment, I felt ashamed. What an incredible way to approach life. I could never have imagined there among the chaos, what a profound effect this would have on me.
From that day on, I’ve tried to see the good in everyone. When I got to ICU it became a massive part of how I coped. I was completely dependant on the staff caring for me. Looking for the good in everyone meant I always felt cared for. Most of the ICU staff were fantastic. But naturally there was the occasional one who was a little rough, cranky, less experienced or simply less competent. In spite of this I was well aware that ICU is a very stressful ward to work it. It is not for the faint-hearted. To work in this area, the staff all have amazing qualities. I looked for these in each of them.
I remember one night the medical team came around to take blood from me for testing. My veins were a little shut down and getting blood was proving difficult. I had a fairly junior doctor who looked nervous even before he started. On his first attempt he failed. Then on his second attempt he failed again. He was so apologetic. The family member with me was getting annoyed and frustrated. I looked at this young man and knew that the last thing he wanted to do was hurt me. He was kind and compassionate and doing the very best he could. It is hospital policy that each staff member is only allowed 3 attempts at taking blood on each patient. After his third attempt failed, I thanked him for trying. By seeing the best intentions in that doctor I was able to stay calm.
An attitude of gratitude saved my life. When the overwhelming moments of darkness crept into my mind, they were soon conquered by positive thoughts. It’s not always easy to feel gratitude, but I promise you the more you practice, the easier it will become. And the best news is, it’s free!
If I haven’t managed to convince you yet to pursue a gratitude rich life, here is an overview of the recent research findings related to the benefits of gratitude:
- Expressing your thanks can improve your overall sense of well-being: grateful people are happier, have increased life satisfaction and have lower rates of depression.
- Gratitude strengthens interpersonal relationships and promotes relationship formatio People who express their gratitude tend to be more willingto forgive others.
- People who focus on gratitude in their lives, show significantly more optimism in many areas of their lives, including health and exercise.
- Self Control significantly increases when people choose gratitude over happiness and feeling neutral.Self control means we make the better choice for our long term health, financial future and wellbeing.
- Recent research performed in 2015 showed that patients with heart failure, who completed gratitude journals showed reduced inflammation, improved sleep and better moods thus dramatically reducing their symptoms heart failure after only 8 weeks. The feeling of appreciation when we are grateful, helps us to have healthier minds and with that
I DARE YOU TO TRY IT
“Gratitude changes perspective—it can sweep away most of the petty, day-to-day annoyances on which we focus so much of our attention—the “small stuff” situations that bring up feelings of impatience, intolerance, negative judgment, indignation, anger, or resentment. Gratitude is a vehicle to diffuse self-pity and self-centeredness, increase feelings of well-being, and prompt mindful awareness of that which is beyond oneself—of belonging to a greater whole, and of connection to others, as well as to the world.”