The Healing Power of Gratitude

As the season of Thanksgiving is around the corner, we're shining a light on gratitude, especially as it relates to cancer diagnoses. Many of us know that a "gratitude practice" can positively impact both our mental and physical well-being, but what does the science say about being thankful with regard to illness? To read more about the healing power of gratitude, and the importance of balancing it with being authentically human in dark times, see our latest journal entry below.

The Power of Gratitude

Can being grateful help us heal faster? Does it make us more or less likely to overcome health challenges? Rather than thinking of gratitude as a life-hack, researchers are using science to discern whether or not gratitude and healing go hand-in-hand. First and foremost, gratitude is not a cure for anything. It does, however, influence the well-being of cancer patients. This may be due to the fact that coping strategies associated with gratitude—such as optimism, positive thankfulness and appreciation—help to ease the detrimental anxieties and depressive effects that a breast cancer diagnosis imparts on patients.

About 20-40% of breast cancer patients will experience anxiety or depression at some point in their treatment. Even after recovery, over 70% of breast cancer survivors will live with anxiety, mood disorder or maladaptive levels of anxiety. Researchers found that breast cancer patients who participated in one study had positive, higher adaptive coping and stress-related growth when they performed gratitude-focused exercises. In another study, they determined that gratitude, specifically a grateful disposition, promoted higher well-being throughout treatment. While gratitude isn’t a miracle drug in and of itself, it does improve mental health during the breast cancer experience.

An Authentic Look at Gratitude 

What does being grateful look like? Is it simply a state of mind? Is it keeping a list or writing thank you cards? For the participants in the studies mentioned above, it consisted of letter writing, journaling and mentally focusing and appraising their current situation through various exercises. It wasn’t rose-colored glasses. In fact, for the patients in these studies, it had more to do with acceptance. It turns out, when we face where we are today, we are free to release some of the stress and fear we carry about our experiences. Many people, especially breast cancer patients, will face inauthentic levels of gratitude throughout their journeys. This kind of “toxic positivity,” as defined by Shawna Rich-Ginsberg, Senior Manager of Support and Education for Rethink, is one of the greatest challenges that our community will face. For Rich-Ginsberg, authentic gratitude “starts with the acceptance of things that aren’t perfect, in a truly vulnerable way.” In other words, it’s OK to have bad days and show up as we are.

Gratitude Defined

Cognitive Psychologists who research gratitude categorize gratitude into three groups: a state of mind, a disposition and a practice. 

  • A State of Mind: Though sometimes fleeting, many of us are familiar with feeling gratitude at some point in our lives. This universal feeling is part of the human experience. 
  • A Disposition: We probably all know a person in our lives who tends to radiate the characteristics of appreciation. These people are never short for compliments. They may be the first to send a hand-written note, and their pleasant demeanor and comfortable presence makes them warm and inviting. 
  • A Practice: Acknowledgement and appreciation are actionable steps we take to express how we feel. Being thankful may take practice and patience.

The Challenge of Gratitude and Breast Cancer

Some of us are naturally predisposed with grace. It’s a wonderful personality trait, to be sure. Yet we should bear in mind that gratitude shouldn’t be forced, as there can be a dark side to this practice. For anyone truly struggling, it can feel like an extra cruel burden to be told to find a silver lining when you’re under a very real, very scary dark cloud. While research has shown that it plays an important role in mental well-being, Rich-Ginsberg explains further that gratitude can also carry a certain amount of privilege. “Cancer is not a gift,” she explains. Although it is a wonderful practice, “no one has to be grateful for a life-threatening illness,” and she refers to this as the “tyranny of positive thinking.”  

The most important step we can take when navigating how we feel about the healing power of gratitude, is simply to be human. We cannot choose how we feel at any given moment. We are flawed, imperfect beings who face the realities of the human condition. Self-compassion, forgiveness and kindness go a long way. And that, is something we are grateful for.

"Gratitude is the closest thing to beauty manifested in an emotion." — Mindy Kaling