This is an 11-minute read.
When thinking about chronic illness, “gratitude” is generally not the first word that comes to mind. Chronic illnesses are broadly defined as a condition lasting more than one year that requires consistent medical support, impacts participation in daily life, or both. Gratitude is defined as having a generally positive and gracious view toward life supported by acknowledging and appreciating people, things, and experiences. Experts and research suggest that practicing daily gratitude amidst life’s challenges can be vital to supporting your health, wellness, and quality of life.
The Challenges of Practicing Gratitude While Living with a Chronic Illness
Understandably, some people may find it hard to identify moments of gratitude while living with the daily struggles associated with their chronic condition. In many cases, living with chronic illness is associated with additional social, emotional, and physical health barriers. Approximately one-third of individuals with chronic health conditions develop depression. Chronic disease can also lead to higher rates of associated social isolation and feelings of loneliness. Furthermore, chronic illness and comorbid health conditions can exacerbate each other, leading to a cycle of worsening primary and secondary conditions, which are felt to a greater degree.
It might surprise you to hear that practicing gratitude can help to counteract, and even prevent, some of these negative outcomes of chronic illness. Gratitude is positively correlated with a better quality of life and protection against secondary health and wellness issues, as discussed in further detail below.
The Immediate and Long-Term Benefits of Practicing Gratitude
Regarding general physical health, one meta-analysis examined the findings of 64 research studies on gratitude and chronic illness. This review found that practicing gratitude may reduce indicators of inflammation and cardiovascular stress, as well as improve sleep. Some individuals even reported a decrease in perceived pain. Gratitude can also support social relationships and engagement. More specifically, persons who regularly engaged in gratitude exercises were better able to maintain existing and create new relationships.
Perhaps the most convincing evidence for practicing gratitude amidst navigating a chronic illness is the emotional and psychological benefits it can provide. First, there is a strong relationship between gratitude and individual sense of well-being. Well-being is often thought of as the cumulative result of experiencing various positive psychological states such as contentment, happiness, purpose, belonging, and general positive emotion. Research has consistently shown that those who regularly practice gratitude report a greater sense of well-being and feel more capable of maintaining their well-being.
Increasing and maintaining well-being is often a gateway to several other psychological benefits, making gratitude a key player in this dynamic. A sense of well-being may help to reduce negative emotions, increase positive emotions, and increase quality of life. All of these factors not only support your immediate positive life experience, but are protective against future mental and physical health concerns by consistently increasing positive, and reducing negative, emotions. For example, people with chronic illnesses who engage in gratitude exercises experience lower rates of depression. They may also be more resilient and better equipped to adapt to difficult life circumstances, such as managing a chronic illness.
Interestingly, medical studies also clearly support that effective gratitude cannot be one of blind optimism. It must be accompanied by a realistic outlook. In fact, naive positivity has been found to negatively impact relationships. Beneficial gratitude remains grounded in the reality of the difficulties that life and chronic illness present, while still acknowledging the good that life offers.
4 Ways to Practice Gratitude
Gratitude can present as something small: thanking the stranger who held the door, stopping to admire a beautiful flower, or savoring the first sip of a warm cup of coffee. You are more likely to reap the benefits of gratitude if you actively acknowledge those people and experiences rather than passively letting those moments of graciousness go by. Here are a few common examples of activities you can do to actively practice gratitude.
Gratitude Journaling – This practice involves regularly writing down the items, experiences, and people that you appreciate in your life. It does not require hours or pages of writing but may simply mean explicitly labeling and reflecting on a few positive moments that occurred in your day or over the past few days.
Three Good Things – As the name suggests, this involves reflecting on and identifying three specific positives that occurred over a period of time. Often, this is recommended as a daily practice but can also be done weekly or every few days. These three things can be written down or spoken aloud. It is even helpful to consider writing each benefit on a piece of paper and then placing them into a jar. On challenging days, those pieces of gratitude can be pulled from the jar to bring a positive reminder of the bright moments in life.
Gratitude Rock or Item – Instead of writing, you may prefer other creative ways to reflect on what you are grateful for in life. Painting and decorating a gratitude rock may be one way to explore your gratitude in an artistic way. Using paints or markers, you can write or draw something you are grateful for while reflecting on that person, place, or experience. Many people choose to keep that rock in a visible place (i.e., their desk, a window sill, etc.) or even in their pocket as a regular reminder.
Gratitude Walk – For those who are more kinesthetic, or movement-based, thinkers, physical activity may be more effective for their gratitude practice. A gratitude walk involves taking a stroll while remaining mindful of the immediate surroundings and reflecting on a period of time in life. During this time, opportunity exists to identify parts of the world and your life for which you are grateful. If walking is not your favorite activity, you can apply the same principle to hiking, biking, running, or any other physical activity you enjoy.
Gratitude Prompts – Sometimes, you may not know where to begin when reflecting on the positives in life, especially if you are feeling weighed down by the effects of chronic illness. It is perfectly okay to keep it simple or surface-level rather than trying to compose a profound moment of graciousness. Examples of gratitude prompts may include listing three foods you have tasted, sounds you have heard, people who supported your health, places you feel at peace, sights that you find beautiful, things in your home, things your body is capable of doing, etc. These prompts can be used in isolation or as a means of supporting the other exercises described above.
As some of these activities mentioned, the suggested frequency for practicing gratitude varies according to individual needs. The general recommended range is daily to weekly practice to ensure that gratitude is used consistently to create a positive influence on your mental and physical health.
While practicing realistic gratitude, we are situated in, and protected by, a personal milieu of positive emotion, relationships, and introspective thinking. These personal circumstances help to contextualize the burdens of chronic illness rather than erasing them completely. So, it is important to find gratitude activities that resonate with your personal needs and preferences so that you are more willing and likely to practice them consistently.
The Good, the Bad, and the Gratitude
While there is ample research to support the benefits of positive thinking, the evidence repeatedly highlights the importance of genuine gratitude and debunks any value in blind optimism. Practicing gratitude does not mean that anger, pain, or other difficulties are eliminated, nor does it mean you should ignore the very real challenges of living a life with chronic illness. Gratitude is, more accurately, a tool for owning, increasing, and protecting your happiness, well-being, relationships, and quality of life.
We hope that learning more about the evidence for practicing gratitude helps you feel empowered to enhance your physical and mental health without minimizing the challenges of life with chronic illness. We invite you to explore our additional resources to learn more about supporting your well-being and happiness while navigating your unique chronic illness journey.