Gratitude: Good Medicine For Stress and Striving

The Stanford student approached me after the second session of our “Exploring Happiness” course. “I’m sorry but I have to drop your class. The course conflicts with my family values.” Perplexed, I inquired further. She explained, “You teach the science of well-being and self-care. When I was a child, I understood that my job was to be very successful. I asked my Mom, ‘How do I become very successful?’ She replied, ‘You have to work very hard.’ The student pursued further. ‘But Mom, how do I know when I am working hard enough?’ ‘Well, my daughter, I’m sorry to say but you are working hard enough when you are suffering.’”

I flinched. We talked. I gently invited her to imagine an integrated, vital strategy, in which she could experience a deep sense of well-being, accomplishment AND success. We talked more. She cried. Sadly, she dropped the course.

Do you wonder what goes through her mind when she awakens at 3 in the morning? The research indicates that her perfectionistic striving for success will eventually lead to mental and psychological burn-out. Eventually, anxiety and distress will impair her creativity and accomplishments. She is a student who concerns me.

In this case, our student swallowed her mother’s well-intended but likely, bad medicine for success. Yet, some parents are astonished to learn that their kids have adopted this strategy all on their own. Recently, a parent consulted with me: “I’ve always advised my kid that his happiness comes first. I don’t understand why he is driving himself so ruthlessly.”

No, it is not always you, dear parents. Then why? In a word — their peers. Some high-achieving peers observe these intensely self-sacrificing students who relentlessly pursue an idealized, and often unattainable, success. The irony is that when character strengths, like grit, fortitude, persistence, and determination, are taken to an unhealthy extreme, they back-fire. The perfectionism, relentless striving, and constant comparison with other students result in a downward spiral into emptiness, deep isolation, frustration, and emotional distress. What is the way out? How can we help?

You probably already know that you can talk yourself blue in the face. So instead, consider modeling the healing power of gratitude. Gratitude isn’t just a soft filmy blur of appreciation. It takes gumption and courage to live with gratitude in a culture that rewards relentless striving. It takes grit to choose to live with thankfulness for what we have, rather than focusing on endless lists of what is missing. Gratefulness is not only an antidote to distress; it is a gold standard of deep fulfillment, meaning, and good health.

Dr. Robert Emmons, UC Davis researcher and author of Thanks, reminds us, “Gratitude can be as easy as a beautiful sunset, an exquisite bite of chocolate, a child, or the brilliance of autumn leaves. No matter what shape or form gratitude takes, it fills us with warmth and a reminder that life is good; this moment is special. Gratitude provides lessons to make us stronger. It is more than appreciation; it is a gift.”

Research suggests why the experience of gratitude is transformative and offers tremendous health benefits. Thankfulness awakens our brain’s pleasure centers, and our bodies produce bio-chemicals that activate a strong and powerful sense of our potential, well-being, and connection. Our bodies respond with vitality and a stronger immune system. We may be inspired to serve others, to contribute to the greater good.

Power up your gratitude muscle by a few simple actions, and model the change you wish to see in your kids. Do these practices alone. Do these with your family and friends. Research shows that if you practice just three times a week, you’ll begin noticing a stronger sense of ease, calm, and lightness. Best of all, these practices can spark new connections in fun, heart-warming ways. Choose some!

  • Gratitext: Take out your cell phone/tablet. Imagine a particular person to whom you are grateful, maybe someone who helped you get where you are today. Send him/her a “gratitext” or a note, expressing your thoughts and feelings of gratitude to him/her for adding value, sparkle, or inspiration to your life. Notice the good feelings that arise when you send this note, and how you feel when the person responds.
  • Reach Out: Notice the many people who earn lower wages but perform a service that adds value to your day. Reach out, and sincerely thank them. Experience the gentle exchange of appreciation.
  • 3 Good Things: Begin a “gratitude” journal. Several times weekly, jot down 3 good things that happened. Stumped? No problem. Take a deep breath, and give thanks for the simple things. The people who contribute to your comfort, whether or not you personally know them. Hot and cold running water. A daily hot meal. Gratitude is a powerful antidote to entitlement, indifference, the “blahs,” and discontentment.
  • Just Like Me: Find a good place to “people watch.” Relax and just be aware of others, take a deep breath, and bring to mind the following thought: “Just like me, this person has faced struggles, suffering, and disappointment Just like me, this person wants to be content and happy.” Observe what gets stirred up in you or how this guided attention changes your emotional state. Do you feel more empathy or perhaps appreciation for our shared humanity? Share your experience with each other.
  • Soak in this awesome 5-minute video with your family and friends: Just watch and notice your thoughts and feelings. 

Gratitude:  Simple. Transformative. Express your thankfulness with courage. Do things that open your heart. Share how your friends and family contribute to your life. As a great philosopher noted, life is short. Enjoy it day after day. Moment after moment. Savor the goodness in your life, little things and million dollar moments. Share the practice of gratitude, a very good medicine indeed to offer to your loved ones.

Carole Pertofsky is the Director of Stanford University’s Wellness and Health Promotion Services at the Vaden Health Center. She teaches the courses “Health Promotion and the Campus Culture” and the “Pursuit of Happiness and Health,” and engages students in teaching, research, and community service and outreach. Carole has served as a Challenge Success advisor since its inception and is also the co-founder of the Spiritual Tools for Healing Center, a cancer survivors’ support network in the East Bay.