When I (KM) sat down to explain to my patient the horrific findings the radiologist had just dictated, I struggled to find one thing in my work that I would be grateful for. How could the most respectful and endearing patient I’ve cared for my entire shift deserve to hear what I had to report?
It was this patient and this moment that taught me a valuable lesson in gratitude: even when it seems impossible, an attitude of gratitude can not only profoundly affect our future, but also carry us forward in the most difficult of circumstances.
The word gratitude is derived from the Latin word gratia, which means grace, benevolence or recognition. (Harvard Health Publishing. August 14, 2021; https://bit.ly/3eXYL4t.) Cicero noted it as the “mother of all virtues”. Gratitude is a grateful appreciation for what one receives, whether tangible or intangible. With gratitude, we acknowledge the goodness in our lives. We generally recognize that the source of this goodness lies at least partially outside of ourselves. As a result, being grateful also helps us connect with something bigger than us as individuals, whether it’s other people, nature, or a higher power.
Gratitude in positive psychology research is strongly and consistently associated with greater happiness. It helps us feel more positive emotions, savor good experiences, improve our health, cope with adversity, and build strong relationships.
Studies have reinforced these findings, revealing links between the tendency to feel grateful and a release of oxytocin, which promotes social connections. Research has also identified links between gratitude and increased overall well-being, better sleep, more generosity and less depression. (Clin Psychol Rev. 2010;30:890; https://bit.ly/3SlU2s2; J Psychosome Res. 2009;66:43; https://bit.ly/3qQksWY; J Posit Psychol. 2018;14:502; Pers J Res. 2008;42:854; https://bit.ly/3ScA3w7.)
Ilene Rosenstein, PhD, psychologist and associate vice provost for campus wellness and education at USC, agrees: “People who are grateful are less triggered or angry, they have feelings more positive and in some ways attracts other people. . When you feel these positive emotions and savor good experiences with others, there is a connection and it tends to build stronger relationships. (USC News. Nov. 25, 2019; https://bit.ly/3f5yzoP.)
I sat in front of my patient, a kind and brilliant human being, and felt at a loss for words. I thought, “I had to tell many patients that they had cancer, but this time it’s much more difficult. I tripped over myself to communicate to the patient that he most likely had renal cell carcinoma and was going to need further evaluation and treatment, and he looked at me and, without hesitation, said, “Thank you.
Wait what? I was stunned. He said he was grateful to have come to this emergency department today to be seen by me. They were new to the area and had not had time to establish health care. When his back pain didn’t go away despite normal treatments, he knew he had to get it checked out. He then expressed his gratitude for being in my care and for me ordering the right tests to find the cause.
“Wow!” I said to myself. “I guess that’s one way of looking at it. I don’t know if he knew the details of his future or if he was naive about the journey he was about to embark on, but he definitely felt grateful in that moment.
Coming home from that shift, I felt deeply touched by his perspective. It seemed like he was setting his course by choosing gratitude, perhaps to build resilience or perhaps to remain optimistic about the diagnosis. I thought about what made this particular interaction so difficult, and it occurred to me that her graceful spirit was actually holding space. for me at the moment. It was not only grace for my clumsy breaking the news, but also compassion for me because I had to break it. If he could choose grace for me at that time, then surely I could be thankful for my good health and sound mind. That’s when I started my gratitude practice.
Rewire your brain
I started looking for at least one thing every day that I’m grateful for, no matter how I feel, what I do or where I am. This practice has continued until today, although I find myself being more intentional and stopping to notice why I am grateful. This keeps me centered and increases the meaning of my work.
I start every work email with gratitude, even when delivering a tension-laden message. Recognizing our colleagues and their contribution to the team creates space for collaboration and builds trust. He says: “I respect who you are and what you bring to the team. I am grateful to you and I am grateful to you for taking care of our patients.
If you have a negative mindset as you enter this holiday season, you can change that. Our brain’s neuroplasticity means it can build new pathways of gratitude to focus on what we have instead of what we lack. I challenge you to start by looking for one thing to be grateful for each day. Use these next five days to cultivate a regular practice of gratitude. Here are some ways to do it:
- Write a thank you note or thank someone in real time.
- Keep a gratitude journal.
- Do the “Count Your Blessings” exercise: Write down three things you are grateful for at the end of each week.
- Pray or meditate.
Clockwise from top left:Drs. Morrison, Cazier and Dinsmoreare board-certified emergency physicians and life, wellness and mindset coaches. Together they own The Whole Physician, a company dedicated to the well-being of doctors (www.thewholephysician.com). Their podcast, Drive Time Debrief with The Whole Physician, is available on all podcast apps. Follow them on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/thewholephysician), instagram@thewholephysician, LinkedIn (https://www.linkedin.com/company/the-whole-physician/), and Twitter@WholePhysician. Read their previous columns onhttps://bit.ly/EMN-Wellness911.