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Count Your Blessings Every Day

Japanese prayer flags tied around tree branch
Grace Under Fire

Judy, a kind, beautiful and very talented photographer had been a dear friend to Joan, our kids and me for decades. At age 47, she began to feel a gnawing back pain; routine testing a couple of weeks later revealed several nodules in her lungs and brain, which to everyone’s horror, turned out to be metastases from a malignant melanoma that was never even visible on her skin.

Judy bravely endured non-stop courses of harsh radiation and chemotherapy. Through it all she remained irrepressibly upbeat, with a resolve to do whatever it takes to survive. Joan and I visited with her frequently during her ordeal, and even near the end of the siege she confided to me, “I’ve still got a lot of fight left in me.”

Judy spoke about her appreciation for the oncologists who were creatively combining the latest breakthrough high-tech drugs to beat back her cancer. She was also very grateful for her loving and devoted partner, Clay, as well as the care and support she received from her adoring family and friends.

During one visit with her at her home just a few weeks before she passed away, Judy looked at Joan and me and said sincerely, “I am so blessed.” Judy radiated a beauty, both physically and emotionally, and her grace and strength during this difficult time were inspirational. Her ability to maintain a sense of gratitude for love and the gift of being alive helped her to defy long odds against a lethal cancer, and not only to survive, but also to enjoy life much longer than any of her doctors thought she could. My mother Leatrice and I were discussing this and she observed that, “God often grants people who are fighting cancer a special grace and courage.”

The Surprising Power of Gratitude

We try to teach our children to have an “attitude of gratitude,” mostly because we think it’s the right thing to do for their social well-being. But could there be another reason we should give thanks? Could it be that counting your blessings is more than just age-old tradition? Might being grateful be good for your heart too?

Research recently published by the American Psychological Association found that practicing gratitude was associated with a brighter mood, better sleep and less fatigue in a group of people who had heart failure (weakening and/or stiffening of the heart muscle). The researchers studied 186 men and women who had been diagnosed with heart failure for at least three months. These patients had developed structural heart disease, but did not yet show symptoms of heart failure, such as shortness of breath, swelling, and/or fatigue.

The early stage of any disease is an important “window of opportunity”to intervene before serious symptoms or complications develop. If progression of disease can be stopped or slowed, these patients usually experience an improved quality of life. If the disease goes unchecked, they are at higher risk of progressing to advanced heart failure and are at higher risk of death.

The researchers found higher gratitude scores were associated with better mood, higher quality sleep, a more positive “can-do” attitude, and less inflammation in their system.

Importantly, the gratitude seemed to be the driving force in improving a sense of well-being. To test their findings further, they instructed some of the patients to on most days of the week for two months to write down three things for which they were thankful. Surprisingly, those who kept gratitude journals showed improvement in health and mood. In other words, it’s not that being happy makes people grateful, but rather it’s that being grateful makes people happy.

“A grateful heart is amagnet for miracles.”

Practicing Gratitude

Though this research dealt specifically with heart failure patients, I think we all could learn a valuable lesson here, a message I see in action everyday with my patients.

Oftentimes, those who count their blessings, and are thankful for every day, those who give back by helping others, even in the smallest of ways, seem to not only survive - but also thrive, often in spite of serious health threats.

So while we can do a great deal to improve your heart health with modern medicine, the one thing we can’t do is change your attitude - you’ll have to do that for yourself. If you’re naturally a person who has a grateful spirit, you’re ahead of the game. If you’re not, learn from this research.

Write it Down

Keep a gratitude journal: a few times each week write down one to three things for which you are grateful. It will take only a few minutes from your day and help you appreciate the truly important things in your life. And as a perk, gratitude journaling will likely improve your attitude, your health, and quality of life—for you and probably for those who are living with you as well.

Most nights, just after I climb into bed I try to do my favorite gratitude practice: I send prayers of thankfulness out there to at least one person in my life. While I breathe slowly and deeply, in the quiet, cool darkness, I visualize the face and imagine the voice of a person who has inspired or helped me, and I send silent thanks to them.

Sometimes it’s my father, mother, or grandparents, sometimes it’s my children; often it’s Joan who’s sleeping soundly right next to me. Other times it’s a patient or a friend, or one of my colleagues at work. We are all surrounded by wonderful people in our day-to-day lives, and being mindful about this blessing can be empowering and healing.

In Good Health,

James O'Keefe, MD

Photo Credit: Creative Commons Pixabay