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Applying the “Science” of Gratitude

Sull_2010_Aug4_adaenzer (9)Gratitude is harder with a chronic illness. Illness takes more away from life than it gives, which gradually and painfully lowers one’s expectations.  Optimism and gratitude can’t reverse this completely, but can help if applied with determination, purpose, and consistency.

Research supports this, at least, so I’m hopeful that I will find this to be the case through personal application.

In a discussion of long term treatments and strategies earlier this fall, a very wise Lyme patient in a neighboring town brought up daily gratitude journaling as an important piece of recovery.

It’s been one of many things ‘on my list’ that I haven’t gotten to just yet.

I’m getting to it today because I just stumbled across a Gratitude page on Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center webpage.  (Which means I’ve abandoned the original google-search and associated task, thereby leaving something else on the list for another day, but such is life).

Before I get into their science and their definition of gratitude, I’d like to take note of something for a moment.  In an essay noted early on in their definition of gratitude, reads the following:

For more than a decade, I’ve been studying the effects of gratitude on physical health, on psychological well-being, and on our relationships with others…In a series of studies, my colleagues and I have helped people systematically cultivate gratitude….

In other words, there are scientists that research gratitude.  I’ve heard of studies along these lines, but I hadn’t given this much thought.  It’s a pretty darned worth-while use of science, in my opinion.

It also helps folks that may get stuck in science to stop and see the forest for the trees. Handing them tools to ‘systematically cultivate’ something (with associated data to give them compelling motivation) may make them more likely to do so.

These scientists, on their gratitude definition page, identify two primary aspects of gratitude as being:

  • An affirmation of goodness,
  • Recognition that good things come from outside of ourselves.

They note social aspects of gratitude that could be even more helpful for someone coping with the sense of loss and alienation that comes with chronic illness.  So many disappointments can otherwise overshadow the people that have stood by us and keep us from remembering there are more of those people around us than sometimes feels apparent.

Furthermore, these scientists note that acknowledging these gifts compells us to repay them or pay them forward.  This is critical for patients to do, not only for their own feelings of self worth, but because there are not as many resources available as one would think (prior to coping with a chronic illness).

Medical sites can’t offer all of the answers, in terms of options and explanations, but just as importantly in terms of the day to day questions that arise.  Doctors can sometimes offer coping suggestions, but other patients are often the best (and very often the only) resource for sustainable and effective day to day strategies.

A brief example I’ve noted elsewhere is Bell’s palsy.  My doctors projected how long it may take to regain facial movement (acknowledging it was a broad guess) and stressed that exerting myself could not only impede recovery, but could also cause very problematic muscle associations as the facial nerves were regenerating.

They may have mentioned how critical it was to cover my eye to protect my sight (since the eye was paralyzed open), but there were not ‘official’ medical resources regarding how to do this.  At least not with enough detail to answer my questions.  Patients, on the other hand, answered each others questions and got each other through the realities of taping your eye shut safely, protecting it during the day, and what kinds of drops, ointments, tapes, and strategies were actually safe and effective.

The point, though, is that the drive to pay forward the gifts you’ve received is as critical to the well-being of other patients as it is for your own feelings of self-worth and accomplishment.  This is indescribably true for Lyme patients who are quite on their own otherwise in many, many ways.

Just a few of the physical benefits (paraphrased and considerably over-simplified) with particular application to patients are:

  • increased well-being
  • better sleep
  • decreased anxiety
  • improved relationships
  • encouragement of forgiveness
  • increased resilience

The site offers tools, suggestions, and strategies for cultivating gratitude, so I intend to visit it again soon.

I may not write letters or follow through on some of the more involved suggestions right away, but here, at least, is a list of compelling reasons to start a new habit.


For more information on this topic, visit the following Greater Good pages:




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