This article is reproduced with the kind permission of Bruce Campbell, PhD and www.cfidsselfhelp.org.
Note: Chronic illness brings physical suffering from symptoms, but it also creates mental suffering, caused by things like worry, uncertainty, regret, guilt and grief. Physical suffering may be addressed with medications and lifestyle changes, but treating mental suffering calls for a separate set of strategies. The articles in this series focus on ways to ease the second type of suffering, psychological pain.
Responding to negative feelings by developing a habit of gratitude is another way to ease mental suffering.
Gratitude has long been extolled by religion. Now, thanks to new research, there is scientific evidence that gratitude produces health benefits. The research is summarized in Robert Emmons' book Thanks!: How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier.
Emmons' book reports on several studies. In the first, he and his colleagues divided participants into three groups, each of which made weekly entries in a journal. Those in the gratitude group felt better about their lives overall, were more optimistic about the future, and reported fewer health problems than the other participants. Results from a second study suggested that daily writing led to a greater increase in gratitude than weekly practice.
A third study reproduced the results among a group of people with chronic conditions, including post-polio syndrome, which has symptoms similar to those in CFS. People using daily gratitude journals reported more satisfaction with their lives and were more optimistic about the future than the control group.
Summarizing the findings from studies to date, Emmons says that people who regularly keep a gratitude journal report fewer illness symptoms, feel better about their lives as a whole, and are more optimistic about the future. (For more on the book, see our article "Counting Your Blessings: How Gratitude Improves Your Health.")
Joan Buchman, longtime moderator in our program, describes her personal perspective with gratitude in her article "The Healing Power of Gratitude." The article outlines how gratitude helped her through a family crisis and produced a long-term improvement in her outlook.
Some years ago, Joan and her husband invited her husband’s sister to live with them. She had terminal cancer and they wanted to help. Joan writes that “The stress of caregiving for those months affected me emotionally more than anything.” She found emotional support from two unexpected sources.
The first was the gratitude journal she had started keeping a few months before her sister-in-law moved in. She writes, “During the months Janette was with us, I felt it was very important to keep up with the Gratitude Journal and I focused on aspects of this situation from which I could pull out something to be thankful for.”
The second source was her sister-in-law: “Janette was a constant inspiration, for in her final months, besides reaching out to others, she took time to appreciate her surroundings and the pleasures of everyday life.” Joan writes that Janette “gave me a crash course in finding gratitude in my life. From Janette's model of living her last days with grace and appreciation of everything she had right then, I learned that I can live a happy and peaceful life with my chronic illness.”
If you would like to increase the level of gratitude in your life, here are five suggestions for getting started.
1) Keep a Gratitude Journal
This is probably the most effective strategy for increasing your level of gratitude. Set aside time regularly to record several things that you are grateful for. (Some research suggests daily entries, other studies favor writing several times a week.)
The typical number of entries is three to five, the more specific the better. For example, “I’m grateful for my husband’s picking up the groceries today” rather than, “I’m grateful for my husband.” The important thing is to establish a practice of paying attention to gratitude-inspiring events and to write them down.
2) Use Reminders
Two obstacles to being grateful are forgetfulness and lack of awareness. You can counter them by giving yourself visual cues that trigger thoughts of gratitude. Emmons says he puts Post-It notes listing his blessings in many places, including on his refrigerator, mirrors and the steering wheel of his car. Another strategy is to set a computer or smart phone to signal at random times during the day and to use the signal to pause and count blessings.
3) Have a Gratitude Partner
Just as you may be more likely to exercise if you have an exercise partner, you may be able to maintain the discipline of gratitude more easily if you have a partner with whom to share gratitude lists and to discuss the effects of gratitude in your life. Also, as Joan discovered, if we are around someone who is grateful, their attitude is likely to rub off on us.
4) Make a Public Commitment
We feel accountable when we make commitments to others. You may be familiar with this if you have set weekly goals or targets in a group. The fact that the goal is made publicly makes it more likely you will follow through.
5) Change Your Self-Talk
We all carry on an inner dialogue with ourselves that is often called "self-talk." When this inner conversation is negative, our mood is usually low. Research has shown that we can change our mood by changing the tone of the things we say to ourselves.
About the Author: Dr. Bruce Campbell directs the educational CFIDS and Fibromyalgia Self-Help website (www.cfidsselfhelp.org), and online self-help group discussion courses focused on practical ways to deal with the daily challenges of chronic illness.
Image courtesy of Stuart Miles / FreeDigitalPhotos.net