I am sure that you have heard this phrase somewhere before(or something similar ‘cultivate an attitude of gratitude’) – it’s appearing on a lot of self-help sites, meditation sites, and lots of wellness guides.  I’m here to tell you that yes, there is a scientific basis for this statement and that it is true!  I do think that it is often a worthwhile goal and something you can reach – at least a fair part of the time.

Disability and gratitude

Living with a disabling condition can make gratitude a more of a challenge – there are so many things in our lives that have gone wrong, or have left us in need, that gratitude for our lives’ blessings isn’t the first thing any of us think about.  However, that challenge makes feelings of gratitude a more important goal than ever!  

You deserve to be happy, so enjoy what you have in life !

I know that just the idea of being grateful when suffering or in pain sounds a bit forced and challenging, but it really can help improve your quality of life, as well as improve your relationship with others. Enough of the studies mentioned below included patients with neuromuscular conditions(a form of disability), that it indicates that we, too, experience these effects as well as self-identified ‘healthy’ people.  

Gratitude is proven to help people with mental health conditions and is indicated to be helpful for many physical health conditions as well.  

I have worked on building up my own feelings of gratitude, and while it is challenging, I have found it to be helpful overall.  I definitely can have bad days(the past couple months have been challenging, with a bug that just won’t completely go away), but by conciously striving to focus on the positives – I ococcasionally trick myself into feeling better.

Does gratitude actually help?

Science says yes!  UC Berkely has a Greater Good Science Center, which studied the effects of gratitude exercises on people who recognized that they were in poor mental health.  Their study found that people who focused on writing positive words and mostly avoided words associated with a negative mindset consistently reported better mental health over time – and their brains were activated differently under an fMRI.  

Keep finding the positives – if you aren’t thinking negative thoughts, your brain will thank you!

In my research, I also found a write-up of many studies on gratitude and happiness, which lays out more of the research already done on gratitude.  

These studies strongly indicate that regularly experiencing gratitude increases the likelihood of it becoming a mental habit, or trait, that helps you experience more happiness in life.  

They also found that after practicing gratitude for a few weeks, study participants found that they slept more(and presumably better), felt less depressed and anxious and that inflamation in their bodies went down.  Generally, people noticed fewer aches and pains and felt less fatigue.  Sounds nice, doesn’t it? 

So far, the studies done on people with disabilities have only been a few weeks in length, so healing potential hasn’t been proven, but improved sleep and state of mind, along with lowered depression and anxiety definitely are helpful steps!

How can I ‘make’ myself grateful?

This is actually one of those cases were ‘fake it ’til you make it’ works!  Research indicates that our brains don’t actually differentiate between smiling due to happiness and smiling involuntarily.  So if you act happy, your brain chemistry is close to identical to your brain chemistry if you ARE feeling happy.  This doesn’t mean I’m encouraging you to lie to yourself regularly(ignoring or hiding your feelings is unhealthy), but if you are unsure about how you feel, give it the best possible interpretation. 

Put on a happy face and enjoy the gifts you do have in this life!

For example, I wake up most mornings and tell myself ‘ I feel great today’, even though I’m not necessarily sure of that yet.  By telling myself that I’m feeling great I do improve how I’m feeling at least a bit.  If, in contrast, I woke up every morning going ‘today is going to be terrible’, I would be focusing on finding the negatives in my day and probably miss the positives – which would become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Excercises like gratitude journals, writing letters of gratitude, and spending time thinking about the things in life that you are grateful for can help you cultivate that attitude.  Think about how you like to express yourself and what feels comfortable for you, then build that habit into your day.  I have a gratitude list myself – One of the things I do after I wake up in the morning is read over and add to my gratitude list. 

I don’t just say what I am grateful for, but also dig a bit into the why – For example, I’m not just grateful for our cat Rorschach, I’m grateful for him because he loves to curl up and sleep on me, and it’s comforting to wake up in the morning with his furry warmth against my leg.   The goal here is to focus on that grateful feeling – capturing its essence and reliving it for a moment, not just making a list.  It isn’t possible to feel grateful and angry at the same time, so the focus on your gratitude can help disappate some of your negative emotions, at least for a while.

You also may want to list or think about the little day-to-day miracles that we have, like plumbing and the internet – things that we tend not to think about but just expect to be there.  Realizing and counting our blessings can help us really appreciate the good things in our lives.

What resources could I use for this?

Gratitude journaling is getting to be a pretty common activity – so there are likely books on sale with prompts that would help you develop a grateful mindset.

I  found an app called Gratitude Garden, which suggests that you write three things a day that you are grateful for.  Every time you make an entry, it rewards you with a lovely image that helps you fill in a larger picture.  I appreciate its simplicity and the more visual cues it gives to celebrate your process.  I do think it’s a great way to get started!

I also tried out an app called Bliss, which I think is great!  They have a free version that I’ve found to be well-designed and to have a variety of exercises to help you build your sense to gratitude and hope.

There are a lot of apps out there that may be useful for you, so my recomendation is that if you don’t like the looks of the ones I tried, just do a search in your playstore for ‘gratitude’ and see what draws your attention.

There are many ways to acknowledge the things going right in your world – pick what works for you!

You also can just use pen and paper or a notebook app to write out what you are grateful for each day – it appears that humans are more apt to remember what we physically write down as opposed to type, but I suspect some of that is about comfort with typing and how you process information.  If writing is cumbersome, feel free to record yourself or simply think about and visualize the thing in your life that you are grateful for.

Currently, I have my list on Google Keep, so I can write or read it on either my phone or computer if I want to.  I previously had used the apps , and also experimented for a while with writing it with pen and paper each morning.

Conclusion: Gratitude is the best attitude to help you heal

I am grateful that you decided to read this today.  

Practicing gratitude, like meditation and excercise, are most important when you aren’t used to doing it.  The less familiar it is, the harder it is to do it, and the harder it is to do it, the more helpful it will be as you practice.  

When you are living with a disabling condition, finding things to be grateful for can feel challenging, but that’s an argument for working harder on finding and focusing on the things in life you are grateful for. Adjusting your mindset towards one of gratitude can help you feel your best each day.  Putting yourself in a grateful state of mind can help you reduce anxiety, fight depression, and feel happier – things that we all strive for.  

People who regularly feel grateful are also more likely to exercise more and generally have a healthier lifestyle.  

Even telling yourself that you are happy or feel good or slept well can help you feel more happy and rested, and smiling can help you feel better even if you don’t feel like smiling.

There is no one right way to improve your mindset, but anything that helps you focus on feeling grateful and happy should help you engage that attitude.  

There is also no one right tool for the process.  Instead I encourage you to do some searching and find a way that resonates with you – as that’s the most likely one to succeed for you!

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