Rough Day? Be Grateful.

by Al’ai Alvarez, MD (@alvarezzzy  @StanfordEMED) and Patty deVries, MS (@purpurdevries  @StanfordWellMD)


Today was not an easy day. We’ve all been there—a rough shift, a bad interaction with a patient, a failed resuscitation, being turned down on a publication, or worse, a loved one lost. The list goes on, and at times things may actually feel unbearable. Is your self-talk helpful? Amidst our crises in life, consider a simple act of gratitude.

To put simply, gratitude is the feeling of being thankful. Although there’s not one single definition in positive psychology, gratitude is one of the many positive emotions. According to Bob Emmons, gratitude has two key components: the affirmation of goodness and that there are good things in this world, and that good things come from outside us.

Gratitude allows us to reframe into positive thinking and allows us to develop connectedness, humility and a sense of indebtedness. It’s been shown to improve sleep, reduce cortisol levels, and has been shown to treat depression better than Prozac! It can even prolong your life.

Yet practicing gratitude is not easy. Our mind is trained to focus on the negative as a product of our evolution to survive. We’re constantly on the lookout for threats and are hardwired to remember the negatives.

There are ways to apply gratitude to our daily work. Although many of us feel we can successfully multitask, our brain can only fully focus on one set of stimuli at a time.  We are not really multitasking, rather, we are switching rapidly from one task to another. This is why “interrupting anxiety with gratitude” can be so impactful. Consider thinking or writing down things that you are grateful for whenever vague anxiety or frustration starts to set in. Brené Brown talks about “foreboding joy,” and using a gratitude mantra to break the negative spiral. During the heat of the moment, consider the breaking the cycle with thoughts of gratitude. You’ll find that you can’t be genuinely grateful and be negative at the same time.

Barbara Fredrickson has shown that positive emotions help us connect with others and be our best selves. She found that each of us has a positive to negative emotion ratio that represents our wellbeing.  Fredrickson found that a ratio greater than three positives to one negative is the tipping point for positivity. This is because the negative screams to us, while the positive only whispers. Successful and longer marriages have a 5:1 ratio.

Cultivating gratitude is a skill. Bryan Sexton has shown that the practice of acknowledging three things you’re grateful for each night, by day 4 or 5, you start having a positive outlook and notice more things you’re grateful in our everyday life. The positive effects of this practice can be seen even 6 months after this 2 week intervention!

If today was not an easy day for you, grab your phone, text or call your friend, your loved one, or someone you feel grateful for and thank them. You may feel tempted to vent, and that might help too, but science has shown that getting in touch with gratitude will make you feel even better. This element of surprise will also make their day.

Another option is to sit in silence thinking about a kind gesture you have received from someone else, or simply think of someone who has been an inspiration or support for you.  Reflect on the feelings you experienced from a gift or thoughtful gesture.  Following up with writing a thank you note and delivering it has been shown to increase happiness for up to month.

We invite you to practice gratitude today and share your successes with us here: GratitudeWorks!


About the authors: Al’ai Alvarez is Clinical Assistant Professor and Assistant Residency Director in Emergency Medicine at Stanford University. Patty Purpur deVries is the Director of the Stanford Health Promotion Network and Director of Strategic Projects at the Stanford WellMD Center.

Featured image via Pexels