By Courtney Snyder, MD
I never like to hear, “You should….," Whether it’s a well intended friend, or a facebook link on how to “IMPROVE YOUR HEALTH IN JUST 5 MINUTES A DAY.” The suggestion that anyone knows the right answer for all of us is annoying. When it comes to health and happiness, there's no one size fits all. Some of us need more protein, some of us need more vegetables; some of us need to minimize toxic exposures, some are less vulnerable; some of us need more routine, some of us need more spontaneity; some of us need more self care, some of us need to give more of ourselves; some of us need better boundaries, some of us need more connection. Within each of us is a knowing of where that balance is. The trick is being open to new information, while trusting and listening to that knowing part of ourselves.
All that being said, I do believe that whoever you are, IF YOU DO THIS ONE THING FIVE MINUTES A DAY, IT WILL IMPROVE YOUR HEALTH AND HAPPINESS! If you think you just heard the enthusiastic voice of the television spokeswoman selling the latest exercise gadget, then you've heard correctly.
For the exercise I'm promoting, you just need a piece of paper and something to write with. List five things you are grateful for at the end of each day - something that happened, something you saw, something you ate, or felt, ...someone’s expression. Stop there, expand on those items or send a thank you note to someone involved.
The link between gratitude and happiness and health may be obvious for some, but for many of us, having that motivation to take five minutes requires science...hard science. Positive psychology is the scientific study of those who are thriving. Some of the strongest research in this field has been done in the area of gratitude. Robert Emmons PhD, at UC Davis, is the world's leading scientific expert on gratitude. He and other researchers have found consistently and overwhelmingly that those who use very simple gratitude practices are:
Gratitude is simple and accessible.... to everyone - not just the enlightened or the religious. It is part of the human experience - just as eating, moving and sleeping are. If this sounds like an exaggeration, consider the daily life of someone who is ungrateful. Really think about their physical and emotional health and their relationships. That kind of life is not what nature intended. While most religions have gratitude practices built in, you don’t have to believe or even consider a higher power to know that many, if not most, of the good things in our lives, lie outside of us and are either given to us by others, or by nature (or beyond depending on our beliefs). While gratitude is joyful, it is also a humble reminder that “it’s not all about us.”
Gratitude elegantly connects our mind and body. The simple act of writing down 5 "grateful's" doesn't just lift our mood, it rewires our brain. We start to scan our days, our world and our lives differently. There are plenty of us who can excel at identifying, judging and picking apart all the negatives in our days. But are those the neuronal connections that we really want to strengthen? If you tend in this direction, you may want to “Fake it ‘til you make it” and practice noticing the good in your life. Give this practice at least 4 weeks for it to become habit - for those neuroplastic changes to occur.... Then keep doing it.
Helping a child create this habit will serve them now and into their future. It may even save their life. Share "grateful's" at dinner, at bedtime or write them down and put them in a glass jar to serve as a reminder that life is about abundance - not scarcity and that life is a gift.
The below 9 minute interview is of one of my medical school professors. Dr. Frank Kretzer lived a life of gratitude - one that many of us are extremely grateful for. Here, knowing he's dying, he talks about life, death, family, excellence and pursing your passion.
(The lines he's referencing come from Lord Alfred Tennyson.)
“Flower in the crannied wall,
I pluck you out of the crannies,
I hold you here, root and all, in my hand,
Little flower—but if I could understand
What you are, root and all, and all in all,
I should know what God and man is.”
I'm a conventionally trained child, adolescent and adult psychiatrist. My current approach to health is both holistic (pertaining to the whole person) and functional (addressing the root causes of illness). I write this blog to share what I've learned.