Overwhelmed with Change? Struggling with Burnout? Here’s a Tool that Works

"Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend." ~ Melody Beattie

This Isn’t Late-Night-TV Snake Oil

Would you be interested if there was a scientifically proven treatment that could:

  • Improve happiness
  • Improve longevity
  • Improve optimism
  • Improve alertness
  • Improve enthusiasm
  • Improve determination
  • Improve attentiveness
  • Improve energy?

Would you still be interested if it didn’t cost a pile of money or require prior authorization of your insurance company? People that regularly practice gratitude have been shown to experience these benefits and they also tend to exercise more and have fewer physical symptoms. The research behind gratitude is impressive. It is one of the least expensive, longest lasting and most effective treatments that I can prescribe for people that are going through challenging times.

Healthcare Workers Desperately Need this More than Ever

Our healthcare world is changing at an unparalleled pace. Mergers and acquisitions disrupt a healthcare system that is already stressed. CMS releases MACRA rules which will radically redefine payment structures over the next several years. Not surprisingly, the 2016 Survey of American Physicians reported:

  • 54% of physicians rate their morale as somewhat or very negative.
  • Only 37% describe their feelings about the future of the medical profession as positive.
  • 49% of the physicians often or always experience feelings of burn-out.

In the midst of if all, 80% of physicians are at or above capacity! Understandably, they found that “48% of physicians plan to cut-back on hours, retire, take a non-clinical job, switch to ‘concierge’ medicine, or take other steps limiting patient access to their practices.”

Gratitude Works in the Trenches of Major International Disasters

In my international disaster work, I’ve seen first hand how powerful gratitude can be. I am convinced that it is the life-blood than runs through those that become unstoppable in the midst of unthinkable challenges. Working along side these people in the trenches of overwhelming devastation, I’ve learned from them to take gratitude seriously and apply it to my life.

The Four Stages of Gratitude

PHASE 1: Decide to be Thankful “During”

When I first started exploring scientific literature on the practice of gratitude it seemed very simple. A study by Martin Seligman found that if people would record three new things they were thankful for in a journal daily for one week, they would be happier six months later than the control group that merely wrote a general entry in a journal 1 . One week give a six months benefit! I thought I would give it a try. I downloaded the 5 Minute Journal app and dove in. Gratitude experts stress that it is important to pause long enough to experience the emotion associated with items when writing your daily list. I’ve experienced first hand the game-changing power of keeping a gratitude journal and I’m impressed.

PHASE 2: Decide to be Thankful “For”

My understanding of gratitude took a great step forward when I heard my friend Tanmeet Sethi, MD share at the TEDxRainier event last year. In fact, I would say that what I learned from Dr. Sethi was Gratitude 2.0: Learning to be thankful “for”. If Gratitude 1.0 (Thankful During) is powerful, then Gratitude 2.0 (Thankful For) is nothing less than transformational. Dr. Sethi describes her formula:

Pain (P) x Resistance (R) = Suffering (S)

For example, if I miss the last step down my stairs and break my ankle, I will experience pain. The amount of suffering that I experience is dependent on what I do with that pain. If I get angry and focus on how much it will ruin my life, I will suffer more. If I don’t fight it but decide to be thankful for the lessons that I will learn, for the people that I will meet and for the compassion I will be able to someday share with others that experience a similar injury, I will suffer much less. If the hair just went up on the back of your neck and you are thinking, “You can’t say that! You have no idea what I’m going through!”, then watch to Dr. Sethi’s eye-opening TEDx talk:

After going through a tremendously challenging year, I can tell you that the subtile (but difficult) shift from “thankful during” to “thankful for” is profound and life-giving. What would happen if you got to the point where you were “thankful for” the changes in healthcare (even though they are painful)?

PHASE 3: Experience Renewed Passion

One of the consequences of making the decision to be “thankful for” was that I began to feel alive again. My suffering diminished and I started to remember why I went into medicine in the first place. I still find myself choosing to “resist” the difficult times and I’m constantly reminded that it merely increases my suffering. Gratitude 2.0 is not an easy process but the results are transformational.

PHASE 4: The Desire to Give

Thankful during, thankful for and renewed passion all lead to a desire to give to others. The impact of gratitude goes far beyond the individual. Research shows that it has an impact on those around us as well.2

Impact on Healthcare

With all the stress in healthcare, it is easy to become discouraged, disillusioned and disengaged. Making the decision to practice gratitude is a powerful step in the other direction. I used to view gratitude as a “soft skill”. Now I view it as a rock-solid, foundational tool. Choosing gratitude impacts the individual but it is also contagious. It has the power to transform a team and even an entire organization.

It all starts with the individual and the decision to keep a simple journal.

Discussion Questions

  • What has been your experience with gratitude?
  • What happened when you practiced being grateful “during”?
  • How has your gratitude impacted the others on your team?

  1. Seligman, M., Steen, T. A., & Park, N. (2005). Positive psychology progress: empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist, 60(5), 410–421.
  2. Emmons, R. A., & McCullough, M. E. (2003). Counting blessings versus burdens: An experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84(2), 377–389.