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Gratitude: A Key to Resilience


The first of two articles by Linda Graham, clinical therapist, mindfulness teacher and expert on the neuroscience of human relationships

In recent years, research data has shown the effect of positive emotions like joy and delight in enhancing our mental, emotional, and physical health and thus our capacities to cope. Scientists have demonstrated that cultivating positive emotions can actually undo the constricting effects of negative emotions on our behaviors, moving us beyond the narrow band of our default survival responses to more resilient options.
Deliberately cultivating positive emotions can broaden and build our repertoire of possibilities. Joy can spark the urge to play, to push the limits, and be creative. Taking interest in something can spark the urge to explore, and expand the sense of self in the process. Laughter breathes some space into grief. Contentment creates the urge to savor current life circumstances and integrate that savoring into new views.
Positive emotions that broaden habitual modes of thinking or acting also build personal resources that last beyond the moment of the emotion itself, such as stronger social bonds and social support, and deeper insights that help place events in a broader context and alter worldviews. They even promote brain development and rewiring. Positive emotions are not simply an outcome of skillful coping; they are instruments for building resilience. In more than one hundred studies to date, researchers have found that people who have a daily gratitude practice consistently experience more positive emotions: they are more likely to accomplish personal goals, and feel more alert, energetic, enthused, and alive. They also sleep better, have lower blood pressure and live an average of seven to nine years longer.
Gratitude practice helps block toxic emotions like envy, resentment, regret, and hostility. It diverts attention away from stress and worry. It brings closure to unresolved traumatic memories. It strengthens social ties, letting people feel more connected to others, less lonely and isolated. And it improves a sense of self-worth.
A year ago, my sister-in-law phoned to tell me that my sixty-year-old brother had been rushed to the hospital with shortness of breath and pain in his chest. He was diagnosed with a blood clot in his right lung and several clots in both legs. When Mary handed the phone to Barry, I dove right into telling him how much I loved him, how glad I was that he was still alive. And then, in the midst of all the uncertainty and dreadful possibilities, I began to feel my own gratitude for our connection: although we were two thousand miles apart, he was still present in my life.
With his life depending on an intravenous drip of blood thinner, it occurred to me to suggest that he try a gratitude practice. (OK, I'm a nerd immersed in the science of gratitude, I know, but I'm a quick-thinking nerd.) Barry is a standoffish kind of guy, not inclined toward self-awareness practices of any kind. To my surprise, he started in, right there on the phone, grateful that Mary was there by his side, that the doctors clearly cared and seemed to know what they were doing, that his beloved poodles were safe at home, that the nurse brought him a drink of water as soon as he asked for it. It was a five-minute litany of everything he was grateful for, even as he hovered at death's door.
Barry didn't die, though the doctors insisted that he could have. The clots cleared two days later. My brother later told me he noticed a "disturbance in the force field" from so many of my friends sending prayers and blessings for his recovery. When he returned home, he became far more compliant with his doctor's suggestions regarding sleep, diet, and exercise. Whether or not Barry's gratitude practice actually saved his life, it certainly contributed to the conditioning of more resilient behaviors in his brain.

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