Uncertain and challenging circumstances surround us all the time. We navigate these situations on our own, with colleagues and friends, as a nation, and sometimes as a world. No matter the cause of your fear, anxiety, or stress, – gratitude is the perfect prescription for better health and improved well-being during difficult times.
Kindness is contagious
Gratitude is a state of mind, where you focus on the present and focus on your blessings in life. It’s a form of positive psychology. You can do this as a reflection or show appreciation to others through cards, small gestures, or a simple thank you.
You forget about the negatives in life and focus on silver linings that bring a smile to your face.
When you live your life this way, it’s contagious just like a virus. Only, you want this contagious feeling in your life. It’ll benefit your overall health, well-being, and happiness.
When you do something kind, others pick up on it and want to pay forward that heartfelt feeling. Fostering this cycle of altruism helps everyone by building trust, care, and compassion for each other. That’s just what you need during a difficult time, whether it’s the loss of a loved one, a cancer diagnosis, or the threat of a serious virus.
One action can spark a chain reaction. That is often seen in the drive-through line at restaurants and coffee shops.
Perhaps you’ve heard the stories where someone pays for the coffee of the person behind them, without their knowledge. The other driver receives the surprise when they pull up to the window, which sparks them to pay it forward to the next person in line. Sometimes this repeats itself dozens of times.
In St. Petersburg, Florida, the Starbucks pay-it-forward coffee gesture lasted 11 hours for 378 customers! Publicity surrounding that long-lasting act of kindness sparked similar gestures across the country.
There are lots of ways you can practice gratitude, and some of them are surfacing as the world deals with uncertain times.
Many small businesses are using technology to offer services to customers in new ways.
Kroger is offering “appreciation” bonuses to workers who are busier than ever as Americans stock up on groceries.
NBA players are paying arena workers until they get back to playing games.
Imagine the possibilities if everyone did one act of kindness during this worldwide health crisis.
Finding gratitude during difficult times
It’s easy to count your blessings when you’re full of joy and happiness with where you are in life and what’s happening around you.
Finding gratitude when times are tough is not always simple. However, you still have things to be grateful for, and finding those things can transform your thinking and mental mindset.
If you’re dealing with an unimaginable loss of a family member, a chronic or life-threatening disease, divorce, unemployment, or depression, it’s likely difficult to find something that’s positive in your life. However, if you search with strong intent, you will find at least one blessing or kindness on which you can focus. By allowing yourself to turn to gratitude, you can find hope amidst despair.
If you’re feeling sad, grief, anxiety, stress, fear, or anger, you probably feel overwhelmed and as if a storm cloud is hanging over you.
You’re feeling these emotions for a reason. Acknowledge them, allow yourself to experience them while also allowing yourself to feel the opposite emotion – happiness. Amidst the dark clouds, there is a rainbow. Dig deep to find it.
If you’re in one of these low points in life, perhaps someone else has shown gratitude toward you. Use that as your inspiration to focus on your blessings.
Sometimes the best in people comes out of the worst situations.
Think back to the heroic events of September 11th during and long after the tragedy. People’s actions to save others cost them their own lives. It happened when the towers fell, and it’s still happening today as many of the first-responders at Ground Zero are suffering devastating cancers and deadly diseases.
A study evaluating emotions in the aftermath of the September 11th attack found resiliency among those people filled with positive emotions like gratitude, and love.
They were also more likely to experience self-growth and less likely to suffer from depression. This happens because gratitude blocks, or at least balances out, negative emotions like anger, resentment, depression, disappointment, and regret.
Think of how negative emotions like anger make you feel. You may notice your face gets flushed or your heart races.
The opposite happens when you’re feeling thankful. Your body is at ease. You’re mindful of the present and more likely to celebrate your unique gifts.
Benefits of gratitude
Gratitude offers these powerful benefits:
- Makes you happier.
- Improves your health and well-being.
- Lowers stress.
- Improves sleep.
- Strengthens relationships.”
Why are there all these benefits with gratitude? Robert A. Emmons, is a leading expert on the science of gratitude and UC Davis professor of psychology. He believes gratitude forces you to focus and celebrate the present and be active in your own life.
You focus on what you have rather than what you don’t have.
Say yes to the life you have and accept it for what it is not what you want it to be.
You can thrive in any crisis, whether it’s one you’re facing alone or with the entire world. Gratitude is uplifting, whether you’re healing from trauma, a challenge in life, a debilitating disease, or the threat of a serious illness.
This is one in a series of articles that are part of our special COVID-19 toolkit. Get tips to improve your well-being, lower stress, and maintain calm during an uncertain time.
How to practice gratitude
So how often should you focus on gratitude? You can do it daily, but Sonja Lyubomirsky, a researcher and psychology professor at the University of California-Riverside, believes you’re better off if you practice gratitude once a week. She found that daily practice doesn’t lead to a more significant benefit.
You’ll see the greatest boost in mood and happiness comes doing it less regularly, about once a week.
It’s thought that it becomes repetitive and boring if you do this daily. You don’t want gratitude to be a chore. You want it to be meaningful.
However, some people experience benefit with a gratitude practice that happens more frequently. Once you get started, you can find out the timeframe that works best for you.
It has also been shown that gratitude may show greater benefit if you are specific and identity why you are grateful for a blessing. For example, taking “I am grateful for my dog” one step further and saying “I am grateful for my dog because he gives unconditional love and is always happy to see me.”
No matter how you’re feeling about life when you practice gratitude, Emmons suggests asking yourself:
- What have I received from ____?
- What have I given to ______?
- What troubles and difficulty have I caused?
The last question forces you to remember the hard times and reflect on them. Think about how far you’ve come. Emmons points out this contrast between good and bad sets you up for finding gratefulness during difficult times.
Look back at other difficult moments in your life and celebrate the fact that you got through those. Acknowledging past success helps build confidence that you will be able to get through the one you’re experiencing now as well.
It’s not to say that the uncertainty, worry, anger, or anxiety you’re feeling is unwarranted. You have those emotions for a reason. However, you have the power to transform your anger into something positive or transform that uncertainty into an opportunity.
In the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, perhaps the opportunity for which to be grateful is spending more time at home with loved ones.
Change your thinking from what you’ve suffered or lost to what you potentially could gain from the moment.
Emmons asked people with debilitating physical illnesses to write about a time in their life when they felt a deep sense of gratitude. He wasn’t even sure if it would be possible, as they were in a lot of pain and visiting medical professionals often.
Most of the patients didn’t focus on just one event but wrote about numerous moments of gratitude. One of the takeaways – gratitude is possible even if you’re facing a challenging time or circumstance. Out of something terrible, their ailment or adversity, came something good, like a new opportunity or new perspective on life.
You can do the same in your life too!
Ways you can show kindness during social distancing
There are many ways you can express gratitude – writing in a journal, telling someone thank you, or sending a card or flowers.
During what can be a challenging time, especially if you are a “people person” and practicing social distancing, you have to get creative. Baking cookies for a neighbor or hugging them is likely not the best choice in this case.
But, there are plenty of creative ways you can still show gratitude during this challenging moment in the world’s history.
You can be the inspiration that sparks changes and puts a smile on someone’s face. It’s the little things in life, and often the unexpected ones that hold the most value and bring the greatest joy.
It’s not always about showing appreciation toward others; sometimes it’s enough to be grateful for who you are as a person. Your gratitude practice for that day may be simply writing three things you’re grateful for in your own life.
20 Ways to celebrate gratitude
Stay motivated during this time of social distancing. Surround yourself with positive messages around your home, pictures of people you love if you can’t see them.
1. Brighten the day of a nursing home patient or assisted living resident who no longer has visitors by emailing or texting a note or drawing. You can also upload your message to social media, use a hashtag, or tag your local nursing home.
2. Email or text notes or drawings to healthcare workers.
3. Create a video for healthcare workers showing your appreciation, and post or send it to their social media accounts.
4. Make a donation to non-profit organizations that are providing support to those in quarantine or living in shelters or on the streets.
5. Buy groceries for a medical professional in your neighborhood who is working long hours or their quarantined family.
6. Create neighborhood theme days. For example, writing inspiring messages in chalk on the sidewalk or adding rainbows or other drawings to the window.
7. Verbally thank the grocery store clerk who is stocking shelves non-stop or checking one customer out after another, and thus putting themselves at risk.
8. Leave a tip for the mailman or delivery person.
9. Buy gift certificates for local businesses, as a sign of support for when they reopen.
10. Email and provide positive reinforcement of humane actions taken by a small business, Airbnb host, or corporation that are offering refunds to events even though their policies typically do not allow cancellations or impose a penalty for them.
11. Continue your monthly support for local businesses that now offer virtual entertainment or weekly classes for your children or family.
12. Thank teachers who are working overtime to find creative ways to virtually teach.
13. Set aside time each day to learn a new skill that can better you as a person and your community.
14. Send messages of support to others with phone calls, Skype, Facetime, videos, and text messages.
15. Donate food items or money to a local charity supporting children who need meals while they’re out of school.
16. Find ways to show your family how much you love them, at random-unscripted moments during the day.
17. Organize an inspiring virtual sing-a-long in your neighborhood or apartment complex at a specific time.
18. Thank a company that has offered free learning tools or entertainment for which there would usually be a charge.
19. Focus on the positives of working remotely. Your colleagues whose jobs can’t be done from home are stepping up to continue the flow of business in a less than ideal time. Thank them for their commitment, even though it may mean potential risk of exposure for them.
20. Lastly, stay home, practice good hygiene, follow social distancing procedures, and other guidance from the CDC. Medical professionals and at-risk populations are thankful for that. Taking steps to protect others means you are also protecting yourself and reducing the risk of even greater spread.
Don’t forget you in all of this. Gratitude is not just about showing others signs of appreciation but focusing on what you’re doing right each week too. And being kind to yourself as well.
Improve happiness, health, and well-being
All of these activities can improve your happiness. You’ll feel different, selflessly giving to someone else.
Emmons’ research shows at-risk patients who counted their blessings and wrote gratitude letters for six months lessened their risk of depression by 41 percent.
In suicidal inpatients, writing a letter of gratitude reduced feelings of hopelessness in 88-percent of patients and increased optimism in 94 percent of them.
There’s a reason it’s so important to feel happy. Your overall well-being improves too. A study published in Personality and Individual Differences found grateful people have fewer aches and pains and feel more healthy than others.
That’s because gratefulness creates a chain reaction of events. Your psychological health improves, you’re more likely to participate in healthy activities and maintain a healthy lifestyle, you may get better quality sleep, experience lower stress, and be more willing to get help for any health concern.
Physical exercise and gratitude can also reduce stress. Emmons found the body produces up to 23 percent fewer stress hormones.
Physical activity should always be a priority, but especially at a time when you’re trying to build a strong immune system and lower stress so you’re strong enough to help fight off any viruses or illnesses. If you’re not feeling motivated to workout, perhaps gratitude can help you find the time and passion in your heart.
Plus, small steps you can take to change your life each month.
Getting enough sleep is another way you can boost your immune system during this health crisis. A pre-bed ritual like gratitude is a great way to achieve this.
In a study published in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research, patients with neuromuscular disorders wrote down three things they were grateful for. They did this for 21 nights. Compared to the control group, those who practiced gratitude slept more hours and felt more refreshed upon waking.
Focus on positive thoughts before you go to sleep, and your sleep may improve.
Everyone is in this together. Focus on the community aspect of what the world is doing to stop the spread of COVID-19. Open your heart up to the possibility that you can build a stronger relationship because gratitude is proven to do just that.
Neighborhoods are banding together and writing, drawing, and creating inspirational messages of hope on windows and sidewalks. In Europe, they’re singing together and clapping for medical professionals from their balconies.
This is the time to find creative ways to strengthen your relationship with others. You may be social distancing, but it’s still important to check-in virtually with loved ones, colleagues, and neighbors.
Improve work relationships
Many people are dealing with difficult situations at home – kids are home from school, and parents are working from home. So, mom and dad are now playing the role of parent, teacher, and co-worker.
It’s a lot to juggle, so your colleagues probably need support now more than ever. Yet, it’s something we rarely do.
Researchers from Harvard and the Wharton School found half of us say thank you regularly to someone we’re immediately related to, but only 15 percent say it at work.
In this research, 35 percent of people said their managers never thanked them for their work.
In a podcast talking about this research, Francesca Gino of the Harvard Business School, said employers don’t realize the power of saying thank you. As shown earlier, it has a lot of benefits for your mental and physical well-being, especially during a crisis.
During the same conversation, Adam Grant of the Wharton School explained why there’s such a shortage of thankfulness. He mentioned that there’s a vulnerability in expressing gratitude in the workplace. Some people think a thank you indicates they didn’t know how to solve a problem or take care of a situation, so a sign of appreciation is rarely shown.
A spoken thank you may also never happen because an employee may think it’s the other’s person’s job, especially for a manager, to help them.
This is a great time to change or improve the culture in your workplace, home, and community. Find ways to come together whether it’s during your virtual meeting with colleagues, through FaceTime with family members, or through signs of support on your windows for neighbors.
Finding happiness amidst uncertainty and fear
Gratitude is not just for the difficult moments in life. It should be part of your everyday life. If a difficult time brought you to think about gratitude, continue it even when you’re through the uncertainty or despair. It will help you maintain your happiness and all the benefits of gratitude.
Plus, you’ll be more resilient the next time you’re faced with a storm and struggling to find the rainbow amidst the downpour.
How are you showing gratitude every day and during difficult times?
As a physician, healthcare executive at a Fortune 100 company, and integrative health practitioner, Z. Colette Edwards, MD, MBA knows the unique value of a holistic, whole-person approach to health and well-being. She also understands the challenges health inequities can present. Known as “The Insight Doctor,” she offers guidance and powerful tools that prepare your body, mind, and spirit for menopause, stress, and inflammatory bowel disease. Lastly, Dr. Edwards coaches individuals in the development of self-advocacy and health system navigation skills.
The foregoing information, resources, links and/or references (collectively, the “Materials”) are provided solely for informational purposes and are not intended as medical or other professional advice. No representation or warranty of any kind is made in connection with the content of the Materials. The Materials may not be current and no one should take any action based on the Materials without first consulting their healthcare professional.