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by Stefanie Russman Block, PhD

Today I said thank you to the staff at the senior living facility where my 97-year-old grandmother lives.  At the outbreak of COVID-19, she found herself hospitalized with bacterial pneumonia – nothing related to COVID-19.  Just poor timing.  

When she returned to her apartment after discharge, she discovered that she wasn’t allowed to leave, wasn’t allowed to have family visit, wasn’t even allowed to go shopping – her favorite thing.  I can only imagine the challenges of keeping a 97-going-on-21-year-old quarantined in her apartment.  Amazingly, her living facility has had very few cases of COVID-19 thanks to the hard work of all the staff.  I sit here, 1000 miles away, with nothing much that I can do to prevent or control whether my family gets sick.  I can’t do the grocery shopping for them or provide medical care to residents in my grandmother’s building.  But what I can do, is make it just a little bit easier for them to keep on with their days.  I can do this by expressing gratitude.

Benefits of gratitude
    
Pays it forward

Anxiety feeds off the feeling that we lack control, which is a common sentiment in today’s world.  Saying thank you to the person who delivered your groceries might not feel like it makes a big impact, but research shows that gratitude has a ripple effect (Chang et al., 2012).  The recipient of gratitude is not only more likely to help you in the future, but also more likely to help others (Bartlett & DeSteno 2006).

Physical and emotional health

Gratitude also has positive benefits for the person expressing thanks, such as greater wellbeing, self-esteem (Watkins et al., 2004) and physical health (Wood et al., 2009).  A study of over 2000 people found that thankfulness predicted lower risk of depression, anxiety, substance use and eating disorders (Kendler et al., 2003).  There is also some evidence that practicing gratitude is effective for reducing worry in those with generalized anxiety disorder (Geraghty et al., 2010). 

Finding the silver lining

The practice of expressing gratitude can help direct our attention to positive details in life that we may otherwise overlook.  Over time, this can bring a fresh outlook on life (McCullough et al. 2002) and has been linked to greater purpose in life and self-acceptance (Wood et al., 2009).  Gratitude is thought to play a role in posttraumatic growth (Wood et al., 2010), defined as a positive change experienced as a result of struggle with adversity or a traumatic event that rises to a higher level of functioning than before the crisis (Tedeschi & Calhoun, 2004).

How to practice gratitude

Write a gratitude list:  Before bed each night, write down three things that you are appreciative of.  There are no right or wrong answers.  They could include a good meal that you appreciated eating or general thankfulness for the loved ones in your life.

Write a gratitude note:  Write a message to a person whom had a positive impact on your life.  This could be a longer letter or a shorter message on social media, such as to an author of a book you liked, a local business, or a neighbor.  The note can even be to someone whom has passed away, as the act of writing the note can be therapeutic in and of itself.  Because of this, you don’t have to send the note, if you don’t feel comfortable.  

Gratitude contemplation: A simple way to cultivate gratitude, is to practice meditation.  There are many meditation apps that provide guided exercises focusing on gratitude.  One study found that contemplating one’s gratitude for only 5 minutes lead to an immediate improvement in mood (Koo et al., 2008).

This is not an exhaustive list of the ways to practice gratitude, but may help you feel a little more positive and in control in these uncertain times.

References

Bartlett, M. Y., & DeSteno, D. (2006). Gratitude and prosocial behavior: Helping when it costs you. Psychological science, 17(4), 319-325.

Chang, Y. P., Lin, Y. C., & Chen, L. H. (2012). Pay it forward: Gratitude in social networks. Journal of Happiness Studies, 13(5), 761-781.

Geraghty, A. W., Wood, A. M., & Hyland, M. E. (2010). Dissociating the facets of hope: Agency and pathways predict dropout from unguided self-help therapy in opposite directions. Journal of Research in Personality, 44(1), 155-158.
Kendler, K. S., Liu, X. Q., Gardner, C. O., McCullough, M. E., Larson, D., & Prescott, C. A. (2003). Dimensions of religiosity and their relationship to lifetime psychiatric and substance use disorders. American Journal of Psychiatry, 160, 496–503.
Koo, M., Algoe, S. B., Wilson, T. D., & Gilbert, D. T. (2008). It's a wonderful life: Mentally subtracting positive events improves people's affective states, contrary to their affective forecasts. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95, 1217–1224. 

McCullough, M. E. (2002). Savoring life, past and present: Explaining what hope and gratitude share in common. Psychological Inquiry, 13(4), 302-304.

Tedeschi, R. G., & Calhoun, L. G. (2004). " Posttraumatic growth: Conceptual foundations and empirical evidence". Psychological inquiry, 15(1), 1-18.

Watkins, P. C., Emmons, R. A., & McCullough, M. E. (2004). Gratitude and subjective well-being.
Wood, A. M., Joseph, S., Lloyd, J., & Atkins, S. (2009). Gratitude influences sleep through the mechanism of pre-sleep cognitions. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 66, 43–48.
Wood, A. M., Joseph, S., & Maltby, J. (2009). Gratitude predicts psychological well-being above the big five facets. Personality and Individual Differences, 46, 443–447. 
Wood, A. M., Froh, J. J., & Geraghty, A. W. (2010). Gratitude and well-being: A review and theoretical integration. Clinical psychology review, 30(7), 890-905.



About the Author

Dr. Stefanie Russman Block is a postdoctoral fellow at Michigan State University.  She completed her doctoral training at the University of Michigan and her clinical internship at Brown University here she received specialized training in the treatment of anxiety, OCD, hoarding, PTSD, and substance use.  Her research focuses understanding the impact of anxiety and stress on the brain and how treatments such as cognitive behavioral therapy can change biology.  She is dedicated to communicating science to the public.  Dr. Russman Block is a member of ADAA was a recipient of the Ailes Muskin Career Development Leadership Award Program in 2017.

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