The power of gratitude is pretty widely discussed these days. Yet, relatively few clinicians have a regular gratitude practice. Why is that?
Research has found that expressing gratitude positively impacts one’s mental health, to the point that neural activity and your brain itself change for the better. Gratitude is also one of those organizational culture creators, meaning individual practices can make waves through an entire team and organization. In health care, this should be front-page news and reason enough for clinicians to give it a shot.
If you are a leader, there’s even more reason to pay attention. Due to the pandemic, up to 30% of clinicians are now considering quitting the profession. Even before the pandemic, this number was climbing, as record numbers of physician burnout and general lack of satisfaction started to spread like wildfire in health care. Leaders have a massive opportunity to pause for moments of gratitude within team huddles, meetings, and forums – and to lead by example by discussing their personal gratitude practice with their team members.
In my own life, I’ve used these three techniques to harness the power of gratitude:
- Understanding how gratitude works. Gratitude appears to be a universal concept in all cultures. Not only does it reshape the neural pathways in our brains, but it is also proven to elevate happiness, sleep quality and reduce risks for depression, anxiety, and substance abuse. Simply keeping a gratitude journal of positive encounters for just two weeks has been shown to reduce stress by 28% and depression by 16% in clinicians. Another study demonstrated that participants who kept gratitude lists were significantly more likely to progress towards meaningful personal health-based goals over two months than the control. It is less about techniques of gratitude and more about changing our lens and interpretation of people, events, and circumstances that seem to be the engine behind wellness, even during profoundly challenging times.
- Overcoming negativity bias. As humans, we tend to focus more on our negative experiences than our positive ones. Focusing on the negative is called negativity bias. The amplitude of an adverse event is significantly higher than positive events, and understanding this is important to avoid being overrun by experiences we view as unfavorable. Negativity bias has been adaptive in evolution, but in modern times, it can adversely impact our relationships, decision-making, perceptions of others, and how we see and experience the world.
- Finding gratitude for the people and opportunities in front of us. Did you know that it takes three positives to override one negative? The good news is that you can increase your positivity, and one way to do that is by looking for gratitude as we go through our day. We can see new possibilities, bounce back from setbacks, reset after a miss, and learn from mistakes as we go through our clinical and personal lives. Gratitude opens our hearts and minds, makes us more receptive and creative, and can even lengthen our lives by up to 10 years. Some concrete ways to find gratitude every day are: keep a daily or weekly gratitude list; write letters or notes of appreciation; keep a journal; be mindful of what you say to yourself; approach each day with a beginner’s mind; and acknowledge moments of awe that can happen as we work together, build relationships, lead teams, deliver care and walk through the moments that make up our lives.
Ask a friend or share your tricks with others in using gratitude to change how we see and experience the world. Let us know how you have harnessed the power of gratitude in the comments below or on Linkedin or Twitter.
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Lisa MacLean, MD is the chief clinical wellness officer at Henry Ford Health System where she helps physicians and residents learn to apply healthy coping strategies, find good life balance, and deliver high-quality health care to patients. Her goal is to empower physicians to become positive role models in teaching wellness to their trainees and patients.