You may have heard the phrase “count your blessings” before. While it can be a powerful redirection tool, timing is everything. If someone tells you to count your blessings when you’re listing life-altering symptoms related to your rheumatoid arthritis (RA), you may feel like punching them in the face. (Thankfully, we don’t pursue this urge.)
Living with a chronic illness like RA can make finding gratitude in everyday life difficult. However, gratitude is the affirmation or acknowledgment of the good in life, and it’s essential for our mental and emotional well-being.
Cultivating gratitude takes conscious, intentional, and regular effort. It may require refocusing your vision and even re-prioritizing values and beliefs. Remember that gratitude is something you create from within yourself, and no person or event can directly give or take it away from you.
Engaging in a regular gratitude practice is not a competition. Your starting point is unique to you, and the only score you want to beat is your personal best. Strive to be more grateful tomorrow than you were yesterday. Consider keeping a gratitude journal, where you write down three things you’re grateful for every day, big or small. Over time, you’ll start to notice the positive effects this practice has on your well-being.
The Benefits of Gratitude
Engaging in a regular gratitude practice can bring about numerous health benefits, including:
- Better sleep quality
- Improved heart health
- Less depression
- Better glucose levels
Before my diagnosis of RA, I only expressed gratitude during expected and obvious occasions, such as sending thank-you notes for gifts, participating in traditional Thanksgiving gratitude activities, and during life-threatening or life-altering events. However, these expressions did not come from within me; they were prompted by external circumstances. It was only when I began regularly practicing gratitude that my quality of life with RA significantly improved.
The diagnosis of RA forced me to appreciate things that I had previously taken for granted. Although I initially struggled with depression, shame, and self-pity, I eventually found comfort and peace in things that had been there all along. I simply needed to change my intentions and perspectives.
Since I began practicing gratitude regularly, I’ve noticed an improvement in both my mental and physical health. I am now able to move and flex my body more easily, experience less pain, and enjoy better quality sleep.
Making Gratitude a Regular Practice
Maintaining a regular gratitude practice does not mean indulging in toxic positivity, nor does it imply that having RA is a positive experience, or that one is grateful for having it. The technique of forcing a smile and saying “I’m fine” is a different topic altogether.
Here are a few ways to create a regular gratitude practice:
- Keep a gratitude journal and write down three things you’re thankful for each day. Some days it may be challenging to come up with three, but it’s a worthwhile exercise.
- Use phrases of gratitude like “please,” “thank you,” and “good morning” frequently throughout the day.
- Savor each meal and appreciate the flavors, textures, and smells. Be mindful that not everyone has access to regular meals.
- Find a hobby that requires mindfulness, like gardening or knitting, and do it regularly.
- Celebrate all victories, big or small, and give yourself credit for your hard work.
- Take a moment to appreciate the beauty around you. Stop and look at the clouds, listen to the birds, and feel the breeze on your skin.
- Write a gratitude letter to yourself or someone else, either electronically or with pen and paper.
- Dedicate 5-10 minutes to meditation each day and focus on your gratitude. Try to block out all other thoughts and distractions during this time.
What I’m Grateful For
After several years of maintaining this practice, I’ve discovered that these are the things I appreciate the most and that I am now more grateful for than ever before.
- I am incredibly grateful for the Americans with Disabilities Act and the amazing people who fought tirelessly to make it a reality many years ago. Their efforts have not only benefitted themselves, but also future generations, including myself and my children. Although I don’t always require accessible parking, electric doors, or motorized scooters at the grocery store, there have been times when I desperately needed them, and I will forever be thankful for their availability.
- Before I started practicing gratitude regularly, I struggled to love and accept my body. I was constantly trying to change it, cover it up, or hide it. However, now I appreciate and love myself and my body more than ever. I take time to acknowledge the miracles my body has performed and continues to perform in sustaining my life and overall well-being.
- Slowing down to practice gratitude has helped me become more mindful in my daily movements, including avoiding numerous injuries and exercising regularly. By rushing less and appreciating more, I have come to realize the true value of all the things that previously seemed like a blur of work, school, kids, and sports.
- As I have become more grateful and slowed down my life, my listening skills have improved, making me feel closer to my spouse than ever before. We both feel heard and seen, leading to a stronger relationship.
- I have learned to accept the imperfections, unpredictable events, and mistakes that come with life, and have become grateful for the pivots they have led me to take. By celebrating all my accomplishments and wins, especially the smaller ones, I have discovered that I am capable of handling far more than I ever thought possible. Practicing gratitude has also helped me raise my own standards of achievement without even realizing it.
- Now, I appreciate the kind gestures of others much more, noticing when people hold doors, stop to let me and my young boys cross the street, and even hand me something that’s out of reach at a store. Before my diagnosis of RA, these small acts of kindness went unnoticed as I was always rushing and in a hurry.
Just to be clear, I’m not grateful for having RA, and you don’t have to be either. This condition has taught me difficult lessons and shaped me into the person I am today, including my consistent gratitude practice.
Even now, I continue to share my gratitude list with anyone and everyone who needs a little inspiration. You don’t need to be a Buddhist or a Zen master to practice gratitude regularly; just start. I promise you won’t regret it.
Be a More Proactive Patient with ArthritisPower
ArthritisPower is a patient-led, patient-centered research registry for joint, bone, and inflammatory skin conditions. You can participate in voluntary research studies about your health conditions and use the app to track your symptoms, disease activity, and medications — and share with your doctor. Learn more and sign up here.
Krause, N. et al. General feelings of gratitude, gratitude to god, and hemoglobin A1c: Exploring variations by gender. 2017. doi: https://doi.org/10.1080/17439760.2017.1326520.
Sirois, F, et al. Gratitude uniquely predicts lower depression in chronic illness populations: a longitudinal study of inflammatory bowel disease and arthritis. 2017. doi: https://doi.org/10.1037/hea0000436.