This might sound like surprising advice from a doctor, but practicing gratitude is essential to our mental and physical well-being. Studies show multiple health benefits to practicing gratitude – it leads to less stress, reduces depression and anxiety, allows for more restful sleep, etc. I’ve discovered that when I show gratitude to those around me, my life becomes more enjoyable, the workday gets easier, and my personal happiness increases.
Even if I’m having a bad day or am frustrated about something, I’ll take a moment and say to myself okay, this situation isn’t ideal, but what is good about it? For example, if a patient shows up late, instead of harping on the fact that I am now behind schedule, I’ll try to focus on the positives – maybe it’s an elderly patient who had to take two bus lines to get here and I’m glad he was able to get here at all. Let’s get started and make the most use of our precious time together!
When you think about what’s going well for you and what you’re thankful for, it helps put the situation into perspective and makes you more resilient. You spend less time worrying because you have less room for negativity in your brain. And you get more sleep at night if you end the day on a good note, counting your blessings, not your failures.
I also love practicing gratitude when people don’t expect it. When I consult with my subspecialist colleagues, I often send a thank you card or note afterwards to let them know how much my patient and I both appreciate their expertise. On many occasions, I’ve seen my thank you cards up on their window sill or wall many weeks or even months later. Even though seeing patients is part of “the job,” doctors deserve to feel appreciated – by their patients and their colleagues.
Savor Your Memories
A gratitude jar is another thing I do to practice gratitude. Any time I have a vivid moment of feeling thankful, I write it on a piece of paper and put it in the jar. There’s the moment my mom was discharged from the hospital after recovering from a stroke, the moment I got into medical school, the moment my then-boyfriend proposed, the moment I started my first job at Kaiser, the moment my husband and I purchased our first home, etc. It’s really fulfilling to see the jar fill up! When I’m sad I’ll pull out some of those memorable moments and feel grateful that for the positive things that have happened in my life.
I also try to write a gratitude letter at every major life transition. For example, I think I made it to U.C. Berkeley because of my high school band teacher Ms. Isaak. I wasn’t the best percussionist but she believed in me and gave me the confidence to grow as a musician. We ultimately performed at Carnegie Hall and I wrote about that experience for my college application. I ended up at Cal despite mediocre SAT scores and really do think I owe it all to her. We’ve stayed in touch throughout the years and it’s no surprise that she continues to do the same for other aspiring high school percussionists!
Close the Gratitude Loop
And you never know when you’ll have a chance to return a kindness that was done for you. When I was at Cal, I didn’t perform well in my pre-med courses. A graduate student instructor took me under his wing, worked with me, and even wrote me a recommendation for medical school. And now, 15 years later, I have an opportunity to return the favor because this person is now a Kaiser patient. Every time I see him I can’t help but start out with the same line: “I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for you, it’s my honor to take care of you. How can I help?” Nobody can ever get tired of hearing how much they’ve helped another person become better. And nothing makes you feel better than to see that answering smile.