Gratitude Is Good for You

Melanie McCulley, MS, BCC, HHP, Former Support Services Program Manager

“Every day may not be good...
but there's something good in every day.”

~Alice Morse Earle 

Thanksgiving is upon us and with the season comes an increased focus on gratitude, but where does gratitude fit with a breast cancer diagnosis?  No one really debates that it’s polite to say thank you and be appreciative, but it can be challenging to summons gratitude when trying to absorb the reality of cancer, surgery, and other treatment, metastasis, or fear of recurrence. It can sound trite, if not downright maddening, to be told to “think positive,” “count your blessing,” and “it could be worse,” when experiencing serious illness, fear, pain and loss. It’s necessary and healthy to express, and work through, the range of very normal thoughts and emotions, but along with that process, there is mounting evidence that gratitude is not only courteous, but good for one’s mental and physical health. 

According to Davis psychology professor, Robert Emmons, his research indicates that, “Grateful people take better care of themselves and engage in more protective health behaviors like regular exercise, a healthy diet and regular physical exams.”

Other reported health benefits of a consistent gratitude practice include:

  • Reduced stress
  • Better quality sleep
  • Increased resilience and coping
  • A reduction in aches and pains
  • Less anxiety, depression and rumination
  • Decreased hypertension
  • Increased energy
  • Increased happiness and self-esteem
  • Improved relationships and expanded social circles and support systems

Immune function is very important when it comes to cancer and people who practice gratitude tend to be more optimistic. Lisa Aspinwall, a psychology professor at the University of Utah, maintains, “There are some very interesting studies linking optimism to better immune function.” In one study, more optimistic people had a higher level of blood cells that support the immune system than less optimistic peers. This does not mean people cause their cancer if they aren’t always optimistic or grateful,  or that having feelings of fear, anger, and grief means you can’t heal from cancer. It just means gratitude and optimism may add health benefits. 

There are many ways to practice gratitude from simply saying thank you, sending notes or leaving phone messages of gratitude, giving compliments freely, reflecting on what you are grateful for at the end of each day, giving thanks before a meal, writing moments of gratitude on slips of paper and keeping them in a jar to review at the end of each year, paying gratitude forward through acts of kindness, etc.. One of the most powerful exercises, can be a reframing of how we look at our lives by asking one simple question each day: What are all the things that went right? Or: What are all the ways my body is working and feeling well? And on those days when it is so very hard and overwhelming, perhaps there is a place for a moment of gratitude for the opportunity to know the depth and power of  your own strength, but gratitude does not have to be about monumental things. An unexpected smile from a stranger, someone letting us go first in the grocery line, a great cup of tea or climbing into a bed of freshly laundered sheets are also gratitude moments. 

This is not meant to sound like platitudes, to minimize the very real impact of cancer or to act like it’s as simple as thinking positive and all will be right with the world. This is about connecting with hope in hard times—the calm eye within the storm--so you can rest your mind and body in that space to replenish and support you as you navigate cancer and survivorship and move forward. 

Posted in: Emotional/Mental Health