Did you know that being grateful is good for your health?
There is ongoing research that links gratitude with improved self-esteem, resiliency, and improved overall satisfaction with life. Grateful people are better able to build new friendships and to strengthen relationships that already exist. Research also indicates that habitually grateful individuals tend to be more patient and to practice better overall self-care than their ungrateful counterparts. More successful weight management and more restful sleep are two specific examples. It seems Irving Berlin was on to something when he penned, “If you’re worried, and you can’t sleep, count your blessings instead of sheep….”
In summary, a grateful mindset can have a positive impact on behavior, emotional outlook, and even physical health.
Living in a world that seems plagued by never-ending suffering, tragedies, and injustices, each of us is connected irrevocably to the sorrows of fellow human beings by news and social media. Such connection allows opportunity for compassionate action and serves as a potent reminder of one’s own good fortune and blessings.
I am privileged to have a roof over my head, enough food to eat, and abundant potable water. As someone with so many blessings, I feel obliged to give back, to contribute meaningfully to those not as fortunate. I am mindful of John F. Kennedy’s paraphrasing of Luke 12:48, “To those whom much is given, much is expected.”
As 2017 draws to a close, I’d like to share some of the reasons I find myself awakening with gratitude most mornings.
Family and friends are at the top of the list. They enrich most of my waking hours and frequently play starring roles in my dreams as well. Modeling the importance of affection and connection, those who value us teach us to value ourselves in the process. What precious gifts are folks who love us! It’s through such loving that we find the courage to become vulnerable and to experience the rich rewards of intimacy in the process; that vulnerability perpetuates more intimacy, more trust, and more affection and connection.
I am awed by the majesty of technicolor sunsets, and comforted by soft mornings of stillness and pink, dappled skies. I am mesmerized by the infinite expanse of an obsidian night sky punctuated by a myriad of sparkling stars and by the churning ocean’s edge which stretches to eternity; in each miraculous witnessing, I am humbled by the perspective of my miniscule place in the cosmos. In his poem, “When I Have Fears,” John Keats eloquently recounts a similar pondering: “…then on the shore of the wide world I stand alone, and think till love and fame to nothingness do sink.”
And as long as I have breath and consciousness, I am grateful for opportunities to say, “Thank you”, “I’m sorry”, and “I love you”. I appreciate the chance that each day brings to make a difference, to learn from mistakes, to make amends, and to appreciate a moment in time that will never come again.
As we grow into gratitude, it becomes richer. In some ways, it can be a counterbalance on the scale of life, to our hurts, our failures, and our regrets. The wisdom, the altered perspective on life, meaningful relationships, and opportunities that is born of mistakes and failures, is integral to molding a mature self. It enables forgiveness and births appreciation for the everyday blessings that enrich our lives.
So, a portion of my gratitude comes from a mellow perspective on how I got to this point. I’m grateful for second chances and the sometimes-painful lessons that have helped me become a kinder and more appreciative individual.
I am thankful for a brain that still learns and for senses that allow me to savor the pageant of autumn leaves, the magic of music and laughter, the fragrance of magnolias in bloom, the delight of fresh pesto and homemade cherry cobbler, and the velvet of my dogs’ ears.
I’m grateful for a sense of humor that enables me to laugh at my mounting indicators of aging. The nuisance of no longer being able to read a menu in the romantically subdued lighting of a nice restaurant seems a high-class headache, indeed. And the ever-present ache in my right knee is a reminder to move a bit more judiciously when I’m feeling frisky. Weighing such predictable inconveniences of longevity with the tender moments of pure joy when cradling a new grandchild, and there’s no contest.
Finally, I am grateful for the powerful, painful lessons that my family, friends, and patients have taught me in their dying. Each death uniquely highlights the power of love, tenacity, priorities, and faith. Using Mary Oliver’s imagery, “I think of each life as a flower, as common as a field daisy, and as singular.” Too, in dying, the people we lose remind us of the precious and finite nature of our own lives. Quoting Mary Oliver again in her poem, “When Death Comes,”
“When it’s over, I want to say all my life I was a bride married to amazement. I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms. When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder if I have made of my life something particular, and real.”
As we bid adieu to a year which is ending and welcome a new one, let us remain open to yet unimagined and unexpected possibilities. May we be mindful of the miracles that bless us each day and be grateful for the opportunities to witness, to make a difference, and to evolve. David Steindl-Rast reminds, “As we learn to give thanks for all of life and death, for all of this given world of ours, we find a deep joy. It is the joy of trust, the joy of faith in the faithfulness at the heart of all things. It is the joy of gratefulness in touch with the fullness of life.”
Let’s approach this new year with thanksgiving. May we be warmed by the power of everyday blessings and count each singular sunrise a gift and each new day an opportunity. In doing so, we’ll predictably improve our health in the process.
Stephen L Hines, MD