Color & Control:

An attitude of gratitude

By Dr. Elaine Dembe

There are many strategies to reduce one’s stress level— exercise, relaxation techniques, restorative sleep, music, social support…but did you realize that people who have regular gratitude practices are healthier, happier, and have better relationships? 

Research studies have shown that practicing gratitude reduces the stress hormone cortisol suggesting that those who practice gratitude experience lower levels of stress.

Expressing gratitude not only helps people appreciate what they’ve received in life, it also helps people feel like they’ve given something back to those who have helped them. In fact, I recently read about a study that gave participants a week to write and deliver a letter of thanks, in person, to someone who had been especially kind to them, but who had never been properly thanked. Participants who engaged in this exercise reported more happiness for the month after the intervention compared to a control group.

Being grateful also forces one to overcome what psychologists call the “negativity bias”, the innate tendency to dwell on problems, frustrations and injustices rather than positive events. When we take time to focus on what we are grateful for, we choose positive emotions over negative, thus we take steps to nurture our mental health and wellbeing.

Acknowledging those who have touched your life in big or small ways and reflecting on how you reciprocated strengthens gratitude, humbleness and social connectedness.

I highly recommend a Buddhist exercise called Naikan self-reflection, which asks you to contemplate and answer 3 questions each day. Here’s my self-reflection for today:

What have I received from (fill in the blank)?
Answer: My husband gave me the best hug and kiss this morning. A cardinal sang me a song. My cat gave me a “hello” meow.

What have I done for or given to (fill in the blank)?
Answer: I helped a patient with her exercise, I made a healthy dinner for everyone last night

What troubles or difficulties have I caused (fill in the blanks)?
Answer: I’ve been complaining too much about trivial things.

Here are a few more questions to reflect on.

1) What physical abilities do I have but take for granted? Ex. I can run up stairs

2) What material object do I use every day that I’m thankful for having? Ex. My coffee maker, toilets that flush, my car.

3) What have I learned recently that has helped me grow? Ex. When you really listen to someone without talking, your intuition picks up on subtle clues about that person.

If you need one more way to inject gratitude into your life, imagine your life without all the good stuff in it. Researchers call this the “George Bailey effect” based on what happens to the lead character in the classic film It’s a Wonderful Life. In the 1946 film, an angel takes George on a worlds tour as it would have been had he never been born. By mentally subtracting positive events in our lives, we appreciate them all the more. It’s a way of telling our life story through the lens of “what if”. For example: What if a specific event or relationship had never happened? What if I had never met my partner? What if I had never had my children? What if I had never finished my degree? I find this exercise truly powerful and spiritual as you trace all the events that had to happen in order for something to positively change your life. I can think of many examples from my life that make me realize how the universe aligns in many ways, shapes and forms on our life journey. 

Here’s one: If I hadn’t moved from Hamilton at age 21 and chose a certain apartment building in mid-town Toronto, I wouldn’t have met Michael, that summer day when I was feeling direction-less. He became the perfect mentor who explained the importance of having a profession and convinced me to go back to school to become a Chiropractor. Now in my 45th year of practice, I cannot imagine what I’d be doing without that advice. For that I‘m truly grateful.  

Dr. Elaine Dembe is a health and wellness practitioner in private practice for 45 years in Toronto. She is a Chiropractor and the author of 3 best-selling books.

The four A’s of showing gratitude

Appreciation: Express gratitude to everyone and develop an attitude of gratitude.

Approval: Give praise and approval to people for effort and good ideas.

Admiration: Compliment people on their traits and accomplishments, it can help you see the good traits within yourself.

Attention: Listen mindfully to others. Show others the attentive listening skills you’d want them to show you.

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