Rough day? Be grateful.

Today was not an easy day. We’ve all been there — a rough shift, a bad interaction with a coworker, a failed project, being turned down on a publication … or worse, a loved one or home 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 it simply, gratitude is the feeling of being thankful. Although there is no 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 reframes your thinking toward more positive emotions, allowing you to develop connectedness, humility and a sense of indebtedness. Gratitude has been shown to improve sleep, reduce cortisol levels, and 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 are 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, in reality 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 breaking the cycle with thoughts of gratitude. You will find that you cannot 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 well-being. Fredrickson found that a ratio greater than three positives to one negative is the tipping point for positivity — because the negative screams to us, while the positive only whispers. Research indicates that successful and longer marriages have a 5:1 ratio.

Cultivating gratitude is a skill. Bryan Sexton has shown that if you acknowledge three things you are grateful for each night, by day 4 or 5 you start having a positive outlook and noticing more things you are grateful for in your everyday life. The positive effects of this practice remain evident even six months after this two-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; however, science has shown that getting in touch with gratitude will make you feel even better. The element of surprise will also make the day of the person you contact!

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. Research shows that following up by writing a thank-you note and delivering it can increase happiness for up to a month.

We invite you to practice gratitude today and share your positive experience with us here: GratitudeWorks.

By Al’ai Alvarez, MD, Clinical Assistant Professor and Assistant Residency Director in Emergency Medicine at Stanford University; and Patty de Vries, MS, Associate Director of Faculty and Staff Wellness: Strategy & Innovation and Director, Stanford LeadWell Network.

December 2018