Living with gratitude is good for your health

June 30, 2021

Living with gratitude means taking time each day to relish the gifts in your life. Giving thanks for the good in your life – and sometimes, even the bad – is good for your health and well-being. In fact, practicing mindfulness in a purposeful way enhances mood and feelings of satisfaction.

A woman writing in a journal
Living with gratitude has numerous health benefits. Photo: Getty Images.

Rachel Slick, a licensed clinical social worker at UCHealth Internal Medicine in Greeley, works with a team of doctors who provide holistic care to patients by addressing their mental and emotional health.

Slick, who practices living with gratitude, is one of the featured speakers in The evrē Podcast series created by UCHealthan initiative to promote women’s health and well-being. You can find Slick’s podcast, moderated by Gloria Neal, a longtime Denver journalist who is the Director of Public Affairs for the City and County of Denver, here:

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Newest episodes:

  • Attitude of Gratitude with Rachel Slick.
  • Believe and Achieve with Dr. Kathleen Flarity.
  • Love Yourself with Vanessa Rollins.

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Here’s a snapshot of some of Slick’s advice on how to live a life full of gratitude and the benefits it brings to health.

Living with gratitude has health benefits. What are they?

Slick: There’s actual science, and research that backs this up, that living a life of gratitude benefits health. We have images of what happens in the brain when we release positive thoughts or when we actively practice gratitude.

And we have these happy chemicals, we know them as the feel-good chemicals, circulating in our brain and throughout our bodies. Many people have heard of serotonin and dopamine. Those are both related to feelings of satisfaction and our pleasure feelings as well. So when we think positive thoughts, those chemicals — we don’t produce more of them — we just release them more actively.

Do you practice gratitude?

Slick: I actively practice gratitude. Right now, my daily planner has a box every day to remind me to contemplate gratitude. I practiced for a year when I was first starting this on my own and the idea of journaling felt a little bit daunting to me. A lot of therapists, myself included, recommend journaling to express yourself. And it can feel like a big undertaking or a homework assignment, so I started really small with a list: three things every morning that I felt grateful for. The key is that it doesn’t have to be poetic or intense or beautiful – it can be simple. ‘I’m grateful for this coffee in this mug or I’m grateful I woke up; I’m grateful my car started.’ These are simple concepts.

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When you write it down, do you ever go back and look at it?

Slick: That was the coolest part of this year-long experiment, looking at how it progressed or what themes were recurrent. I was constantly grateful for my health. I was actively grateful for my family’s health. There were a lot of repeat offenders, if you will, that kept showing up and it was easier to be actively grateful for those. … If you’re having a great day, it’s easier to brainstorm those obvious things that you feel grateful for, knowing that you might have a less-than-great day up ahead, and you might need some help coming up with those ideas and you’ve already set them up.

Women often criticize their bodies. How can we be more grateful for the bodies we have?

Slick: I think that attitude of gratitude, if you will, can be a challenge as we look at something that we’re told to critique constantly or never feel quite adequate with. By applying gratitude to our bodies, we can appreciate more of what they do and that helps us treat them better. Think about buying a new car, nobody’s allowed to eat in it. It’s going to smell good. It’s going to stay clean. I’m so proud of this car. I’m so grateful for this new car, I’m going to treat it so well.

What if we copied and pasted that logic and said, ‘I’m grateful for this body, this machine that’s running all of these involuntary systems second to second, without me telling it to. I’m so grateful for that. I want to drink more water. I want to feed it well. I want to move my body. I want to celebrate my body.’’’

Is there danger in practicing gratitude in that women may negate what they’re feeling and, instead, try to just find the gratefulness and positivity and brush aside their true feelings?

Slick: The power of positive thinking is out there and it’s true and it is evidence-based, and I said it myself, there’s research. But sometimes, we almost end up feeling worse when we have a hard time reaching that positivity mark. If it is a day when we have heavy feelings and intense emotions, we force positivity and we kind of feel like if we fall short of that, it could feel worse. So absolutely feel grateful for things without invalidating yourself and be grateful for that. If you have an emotion other than happy right now, that’s just as permissible as feeling like a Disney princess, right?

Rachel Slick headshot. She's an expert on behavioral health and explains how loneliness during the COVID-19 pandemic has been common. She talks about living with gratitude.
Rachel Slick is a behavioral health specialist and said many patients have been coping with loneliness during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo by Danna Fryer, courtesy of Rachel Slick.

I’m allowed to feel sad for a moment and be grateful. Those two things can co-exist. Just because you have everything you need doesn’t mean you’re not allowed to have those other emotions. I have so many patients who sit on my couch in my office and negate their validity, saying: “Why am I even here? So many people have it worse than me.’ And I love that. I think that’s a beautiful, empathetic perspective, and they’re grateful for what they have. But I tell them, that’s like saying, ‘I’m not allowed to have a good day because somebody somewhere is having a better day.’ That’s not fair. That’s not how that works. Have your feelings.

So, I shouldn’t negate what I’m truly feeling because someone else is worse off than me or better off than me, depending on the emotions?

Slick: Absolutely. If we act like those not-so-fond emotions like sadness, anger and fear – if we act like those aren’t real, they show back up. If we don’t give them the time that they want, they show back up louder and more intense. So we’re allowed to pay attention to those and acknowledge that they exist.

What if I have trouble getting started on this path of living each day with gratitude?

Slick: You can look at doing this with someone else and not doing it alone. It’s like we said before, it’s a daunting undertaking to just start practicing gratitude, right now in this minute. So maybe we’re not putting it off because we’re lazy about it, but we’re lonely about it. ‘How do I do this by myself?’ So a quick idea is to recruit a gratitude buddy or an accountability buddy. Maybe it’s a group chat that you already have. Maybe that list we talked about – one, two, three, I’m grateful every morning – maybe you send that in the group chat, and then you can read each other’s contributions. Maybe your friend has something she’s grateful for that you hadn’t thought of yet. And that can just amplify that, that gratitude that you’re sharing.

What are some of the ways to practice gratitude when you are having a hard, stressful day?

Slick: It is tough. Like I said, there’s that pressure of positive thinking all the time. So if you’re kind of in this negative thinking rut throughout your day, maybe you remove that pressure to just turn it around, switch narrative and think positive thoughts, which seem impossible sometimes. So if you move toward neutral, it’ll get you out of that negative rut without feeling like you’re inadequate in terms of positive thinking.

So making observations, starting really small, like, ‘Oh, look, that person cut me off in traffic.’ That’s not celebratory, right? But we’re also not trying to be super negative about it. Or just trying to kind of notice things. Today was a stressful day. That’s the statement, right? Just making these neutral observations without feeling like you have to turn it around.

What does the acronym STOP mean to you as it relates to living with gratitude?

Slick: STOP is just what it sounds like. It’s kind of a pause button and it’s for those days where maybe you feel overwhelmed and you can’t really get your feet under you.

  • So the first letter S is stop. Stop what you’re doing, take a physical pause, pull back from your computer and stop what you’re doing.
  • The T is for take a breath. I wouldn’t be a therapist if I didn’t tell you to take a deep breath, right? That’s what we do. Take that deep breath. And when was the last time you stopped and took a breath? Those two steps alone are important.
  • O is for observe. And we want to scan our body — kind of check in. Go for a walk upstairs, take a ‘walk’ around your brain and figure out what’s sticking, what’s getting on your nerves, what’s weighing on you. Check in with your body, too. Where are you holding onto tension – your jaw, your neck, your shoulders. Maybe you’re making fists or clenching your toes and you don’t even recognize it.
  •  P is proceed with purpose. This is your action item. What do I do to mitigate what I found when I was observing in that previous step? Proceed with purpose, that’s when you might need to go for your walk or drink something other than coffee for once. Or get up and use the restroom. And if you can’t tangibly do any of those things in the moment, maybe you’re stuck at your desk, maybe you’ve got a meeting, what can you do? Can you make a list? Can you give yourself grace for an hour? What sort of abstract action can you take for yourself before you can go for that walk?

What do you do when you try so hard to be full of gratitude that it seems fake?

Slick: There’s power in authenticity and letting yourself have those feelings. I always say that emotions are not dashboard lights, right? So when something comes up on our car, we have to fix it, we’ve got to take it in because there’s something wrong. When an emotion comes up for us, it doesn’t necessarily mean we have to fix it. When we feel scared, we feel like we have to do something with that. Or when we feel sad, we feel like we have to think happy thoughts, when really those serve a purpose, just like feeling happy, and they’re just as fleeting. They will pass.

What advice to you have for folks who are apprehensive about going to therapy?

Slick: I say, ‘I don’t blame you.’ It’s a weird concept to sit in a room with a stranger and talk about personal things. It’s also a little bit safer than talking to people you know about personal things. So valuing that sacred space, I know this all sounds so cheesy because it is, it’s confidential. Legally, that person can’t share anything about you and you know that they’re going to be on your team and maybe give you some tough love. But for the most part, they’ll make you feel like you’re not crazy. And I think that’s the biggest epiphany that I watch my patients experience when they’ve been on the fence about coming in. They say, ‘I thought I had to be crazy to see a therapist and you’ve actually made me feel like I’m pretty valid. And I’m not the only one with these thoughts and feelings.’

Is self-care really about being selfish?

Slick: I would say that self-care is not selfish. It is necessary. And I think it’s kind of glamorized. We see these magazine articles about self-care, telling you to go get your nails done or something and that’s not harmful. It’s just not really sustainable, right?

So what about self-care in the moment, when you are overwhelmed at work and a mani-pedi is not an option. I can’t just go to the mountains or Miami or what have you. Take a bubble bath? Those are good ideas, those are treat yourself moments but what about those basic, basic needs? I need a break from work. I need to drink some water, XYZ. So I love reframing the idea of self-care as these really boring basic things that we do to keep our children alive, our house plants alive. We need to drink water. We need food, movement, sun and social connection. We need enough sleep. To me that’s self-care. It’s less bubble bath and it’s more super boring basics.

In summary:

  • Write down one to two things you’re grateful for each day in a notebook or in a journal and it could be something you do every morning or every night.
  • Do not put pressure on yourself to always be positive. Let me say that again. Stop putting pressure on yourself to be positive. It is important to allow yourself the downs as well as the ups, to feel it all.
  • Practice the STOP technique, to ground yourself when you’re feeling stressed or overwhelmed. Stop, S T O P. Stop what you’re doing. Take a deep breath. Observe what’s going on inside you. And proceed with purpose. Take care of all of your needs before you take care of someone else’s.
  • Remind yourself that the hard times don’t last always. And focus on the improvements or even the wins, however small, instead of focusing on the challenges and the hardships, because they are going to be there.
  • Make time for self-care by doing something that you love. Self-care is not selfish.