Michael Abrahams | Cultivating an attitude of gratitude
The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines health as "a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity."
I was taught this definition in medical school, and that we should embrace and practice a holistic (all-encompassing) approach to health. Unfortunately, many of the practitioners who taught me did not follow this edict, and focused solely on the physical. By the end of my training, I realised that what I was taught was a Eurocentric, Western system of managing health, and that I knew nothing of other healing modalities and systems. So, realising that it would be arrogant and disingenuous of me to learn only one system of healing and think that I know it all, I began to explore healing techniques from other cultures. During my exploration I came across Reiki, a practice which originated in Japan. Reiki literally means ‘universal life energy’, and is a healing technique based on the principle that the practitioner can channel energy into a patient, activating their own healing processes, to achieve well-being. It was during my training that I came across the principle of having an ‘attitude of gratitude’, which happens to be integral not only to the practice of Reiki, but as I later discovered, important for our health.
The term is self-explanatory. Adopting this mindset means regularly appreciating and expressing thankfulness for what we have, both the big and the little things. According to New York Times best-selling author Lewis Howes, in his book The School of Greatness, “If you concentrate on what you have, you’ll always have more. If you concentrate on what you don’t have, you’ll never have enough.”
Adopting an attitude of gratitude would be expected to improve our happiness and overall sense of well-being. Not surprisingly, research findings support this. For example, one study from the University of Pennsylvania found that people who wrote and delivered a heartfelt thank-you letter felt happier for a month after, and the same researchers also discovered that writing down three positive events each day for a week kept happiness levels high for up to six months.
Researchers at Eastern Washington University described four primary characteristics of grateful people. These persons:
• Feel a sense of abundance in their lives
• Appreciate the contributions of others to their well-being
• Recognise and enjoy life's small pleasures
• Acknowledge the importance of experiencing and expressing gratitude
Human energy is a real entity, and people who display these characteristics are not only happier, but they transfer this energy to those around them. Whiners and complainers exude negativity and repel others including friends, family, neighbours, co-workers and potential allies, further contributing to their social isolation and misery.
These mental and social benefits of having an attitude of gratitude make sense, and the above-mentioned research findings should not surprise us. But there are physical benefits as well.
Paul Mills, a professor of family medicine and public health at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine, conducted a study examining the correlation between the expression of gratitude and heart health. He recruited 186 men and women, average age 66, who already had heart disease, and asked them to fill out a questionnaire to rate how grateful they felt for the people, places or things in their lives. The results indicated that the more grateful people were, the healthier they were as well. According to Mills, "They had less depressed mood, slept better and had more energy.” Not only that, but when blood tests were performed to measure inflammation, the body's natural response to injury, or plaque buildup in the arteries, he found lower levels among those who were grateful, indicating better cardiac health.
In a follow-up study, Mills examined 40 patients with heart disease and asked half of them to keep a journal most days of the week, and write about two or three things they were grateful for. After two months, all 40 patients were retested and health benefits were observed for the patients who wrote in their journals. Inflammation levels were reduced, and heart rhythm improved, and when he compared their heart disease risk before and after journal writing, there was a decrease in risk after two months of writing in their journals.
The likely mechanism for the therapeutic effects of gratitude on the cardiovascular system is reduction of stress, which is known to adversely affect the levels of hormones and other substances in our bodies, which can result in poor health.
I have found this attitude to be immensely rewarding in my own life. I express gratitude daily for my family, friends, job and other things, and this helps me to cope much better with stress, especially that encountered in my profession. I absolutely love being an obstetrician and gynaecologist, but the job can be extremely stressful. There are days when my phones ring constantly and the demands placed on me are overwhelming, and fulfilling them all seems to be impossible. But, in my moments of despair, I stop and give thanks for the fact that I actually have a job, and would take job stress over unemployment stress any day. I also believe in energy conversion, and whenever I have negative experiences, I embrace them and find ways to appreciate their benefits, such as teaching me lessons which I can use not only to help myself, but others as well, in addition to using the material for comedy, poetry or writing a column or a song. In other words, I convert negative energy to positive energy.
Fortunately, this attitude, if it is not inherent in us, can be learnt. A good start can be keeping a ‘gratitude journal’, a daily list of events, people and things that we are grateful for. Write thank-you notes, and expressing gratitude regularly will also benefit us. Be grateful, and be healthy.