Tune into the good, but don’t ignore the uncomfortable

Grace Cook RMN, MSc, BSc (Hons) - Practice Development FacilitatorGrace Cook, FoNS Facilitator and RBCS Lead

The world is currently full of threats. Every time I turn on the news there are stories full of negative things happening. Not just in the news, day in, day out I hear about stressors others are facing, wanting to provide the best possible care and not having the resources to do so – it feels quite overwhelming.

As part of my own clinical supervision with Professor Gemma Stacey, I recognised this. Gemma mentioned that she had just started reading The Gratitude Diaries by Janice Kaplin (2015). So, I decided to read this as well. Janice is a journalist who made a conscious decision to spend a year practising positivity and gratitude. The effects for her were incredible. She spoke of improved relationships, mood and even physical health! On finishing the book, I felt really inspired and motivated to look into gratitude further and try this out for myself.

In my reading, I found that the most common definition of gratitude is as a general tendency to notice and experience appreciation for the good in our lives, or as a response to a benefit received (Emmons and McCullough, 2003.) As humans, our brains will focus on threats first as a way of protecting ourselves from danger, this includes threats we see on the news, social media and hearing other’s stories. Focusing on things we are grateful for can help bring balance to that. Lucy Hone (2020), an expert in resilience and someone else I find inspiring, also talks about this being one of the secrets of resilient people; they know how to tune into the good.

On top of this, I found that there is more and more evidence coming out about the impact of gratitude-based interventions, including with care workers. The benefits include:

  • Greater creativity, attention and ability to collate information (Rao and Kemper, 2017)
  • Increase enthusiasm and hope and alleviate depression (Jacobson et al., 2022; Bazargan-Hejazi et al., 2023)
  • Increased self-compassion (Rao and Kemper, 2017;)
  • Improved connection and relationships (Aparicio et al., 2018; Bazarghan-Hejazi et al., 2023)
  • Improved ability to provide person-centred care (Fournier and Sheehan, 2015; Rao and Kemper, 2017)

And amazingly all of these can create a ripple effect to others (Aparicio et al., 2018). This mirrors what I read in Janice’s book about the impact on her and the others around her.

However, there is also a concern about the potential negative side of gratitude, with some research not showing any impact at all (Jans-Beken et al., 2020). If we only tune into the good, this does not factor in the reality of life. We feel different emotions for a reason, they alert us to things, they help us to work through difficult situations. For example, when I watch the news, I can sometimes feel angry. When I stop to think about it, it is often because of the injustice of something that is happening. This anger tells me that and makes me want to do something about it. We label emotions positive and negative but should we? Anger, sadness, fear may be uncomfortable but we have them for a reason. I quite like an alternative label such as uncomfortable and comfortable emotions like in this emotion wheel. When we label our emotions negative we may want to get rid of them as soon as possible, for ourselves and for others. This is what’s known as toxic positivity, and it can have a really detrimental impact on long-term wellbeing. Brené Brown and Dr Susan David discuss the dangers of this in the Dare to Lead (2021) podcast. One of the key points I picked up from this podcast is that of authenticity, as opposed to just trying to cover the uncomfortable emotion by saying anything positive we can think of. Could authentically noticing what we are grateful for be the difference between gratitude making a difference or not?

The conclusion I came to for me is that there is a balance to be had. It is important to notice, acknowledge and sit with our own emotions, we have them for a reason! But also by practicing authentic gratitude this may help to regulate these emotions and help us to tune into the good within our lives. So, I am going to do my own little experiment and each day just notice one little thing that I can be grateful for whilst still allowing myself to feel the normal emotions we all feel.

What do you think about gratitude? What will you do?

 

References

Aparicio, M., Centeno, C., Robinson, C. and Arantzamendi, M. (2019) Gratitude between patients and their families and health professionals: A scoping review. Journal of Nursing Management. Vol. 27. Issue 2. pp. 286-300. Blackwell Publishing Ltd. https://doi.org/10.1111/jonm.12670

Bazargan-Hejazi, S., Dehghan, K., Chou, S., Bailey, S., Baron, K., Assari, S., Marzio, R., Teklehaimanot, S., Kermah, D., Lindstrom, R. W., Shirazi, A., Lopez, D. and Barzargan, M. (2023) Hope, optimism, gratitude, and wellbeing among health professional minority college students. Journal of American College Health. Vol. 71. No. 4. pp 1125-1133. https://doi.org/10.1080/07448481.2021.1922415

Brown, B. (2021) Dare to Lead: Dr. Susan David on The Dangers of Toxi Positivity, Part 1 of 2. Available online at: https://brenebrown.com/podcast/brene-with-dr-susan-david-on-the-dangers-of-toxic-positivity-part-1-of-2/

Emmons, R.A. and 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. Vol. 84. No. 2. pp 377–389. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.84.2.377

Fournier, A. and Sheehan, C. (2015) Growing gratitude in undergraduate nursing students: Applying findings from social and psychological domains to nursing education. Nurse Education Today. Vol. 35. No. 12. pp 1139-1141. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.nedt.2015.08.010

Hone, L. (2020) Three Secrets of Resilient People – TED talk. Available online at: https://www.ted.com/talks/lucy_hone_3_secrets_of_resilient_people?language=en

Jacobson, N., Westein, R., Nordstrom, R. and Pilarski, A. (2022) #WhyIDoIt: A Multidisciplinary Wellness Initiative in an Academic Emergency Department. Western Journal of Emergency Medicine. Vol. 23. No. 5. pp 693-697. https://doi.org/10.5811/westjem.2022.4.55813

Jans-Beken, L., Jacobs, N., Janssens, M., Peeters, S., Reijnders, J., Lechner, L. and Lataster, J. (2020) Gratitude and health: An updated review. Journal of Positive Psychology. Vol. 15. No. 6. pp 743-782. https://doi.org/10.1080/17439760.2019.1651888

Kaplan, J. (2015) The Gratitude Diaries: How a year looking on the bright side can transform your life. Dutton, USA.

Rao, N. and Kemper, K.J. (2017) Online training in specific meditation practices improves gratitude, well-being, self-compassion, and confidence in providing compassionate care among health professionals. Journal of Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Vol 22. No. 2. pp 237-241. https://doi.org/10.1177/2156587216642102

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