Reaping the Benefits of Gratitude

As a justice-conscious American, I am troubled by the historical roots of the Thanksgiving holiday as a celebration of conquest. But I enjoy some of the modern traditions that have become associated with the holiday: a few days off from work or school, a chance to spend time with loved ones, good food, and the deliberate practice of “thanksgiving”; taking time to think of things we appreciate in our lives.

As disabled people, gratitude can sometimes be hard to find. We may encounter frequent circumstances that make us sad, angry, frustrated, fearful, ashamed, or worried. Some of us may be overwhelmed by physical discomfort or emotional trauma. We may face food or housing insecurity, or feel disconnected from our communities. Amid such struggles, it may be difficult to bring to mind the positives in our lives.

Yet research indicates that making the effort to identify sources of gratitude has a myriad of physical and emotional benefits. In a classic study (links to PDF) college students who were randomly assigned to keep daily or weekly “gratitude journals” reported more positive moods, felt happier about how their lives were going, were more likely to report helping others, and were more optimistic about the future compared with others who wrote about neutral topics. In a follow-up study, the researchers randomly assigned some individuals with neuromuscular disease to write daily gratitude journals. These individuals were not only happier than those who were not assigned to keep gratitude journals, but they also reported getting more sleep each night and feeling more connected to others. In another study,people with chronic pain who reported feeling more gratitude in their everyday lives experienced less symptoms of depression and anxiety, and also reported better sleep than those with less frequent experiences of gratitude.

Negative thoughts and feelings are a bit like gum on the bottom of your shoe; once it’s there, it sticks, and is difficult to scrape away. But gratitude can disrupt negative mind cycles, and if practiced enough, can become a cycle of its own. In fact, some research suggeststhat gratitude can trigger the release of “feel-good” brain chemicals like dopamine and serotonin, which can motivate us to keep looking out for things that make us grateful.

Before I close with some suggestions to start your gratitude journal, I want to address two caveats when we talk about gratitude in the disability community. First, disabled people are often expected to be grateful by others. For example, “You should be grateful when that man almost carried you across the street; he was just trying to help.” Or “don’t ask for that accommodation; you should be grateful to have a job here at all.” Coerced gratefulness doesn’t work; in order to confer benefits, gratitude needs to be natural and organic. Nor is gratefulness a reason to accept the status quo. We can be genuinely grateful for the things we do have, while at the same time, expecting and pushing for the things we deserve.

Second, the shadow side of being grateful for what we have is pitying others for not having those things. Disabled people often find ourselves unintended objects of nondisabled people’s gratitude. “That poor man in the wheelchair! I’m so grateful that I can walk,” someone might think, or even say aloud. “Thank God I’m not blind like you.” And so on. When we exercise gratitude, it can be tempting to compare ourselves to others who lack things we have as a means of boosting our own sense of gratefulness. But this may weaken the benefits. In fact, in one of the studies described earlier, some college students were asked to write about things they had that others don’t have, instead of writing about things they were grateful for. The students who compared themselves to others did not report the same boost in happiness and optimism as the students who wrote about sources of gratitude. It is possible to fully experience appreciation for what we have in the present, without comparing ourselves to anyone else. We can be grateful, while also humbling ourselves with an awareness of our privilege and a commitment to share what we do have with others whenever we can.

When you’re getting started with a gratitude list, sometimes the simplest things can be most compelling. For example, you might be grateful for:

  • A special connection with a significant other, family member, or friend, even just one person;

  • Access to conveniences like electricity and running water;

  • The beauties of nature, the warmth of the sun, a rainbow or a sunset, the birds chirping, fresh air or ocean smells;

  • A connection with God or faith;

  • A period of good physical or mental health, which could be as long as a decade, or as short as an hour;

  • A special mentor from childhood, perhaps just one person, perhaps many;

  • An experience where you were included and valued, or an experience of access intimacy;

  • Try converting a negative situation into a gratitude exercise. For example, if you are annoyed or stressed by a situation at work, try to focus on your gratitude for having a job, and for all the things (education, mentors, resources) that helped you become employed.

This November, I am grateful for the opportunity to improve public understandings of disability through Disability Wisdom Consulting. I am grateful to everyone who has helped make Disability Wisdom a possibility. Most of all, I am deeply grateful to be part of an international disability community, to know that I am not alone in my disability experience, and to have the chance to empower others. Happy Thanksgiving to all.

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