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Gratitude Therapy

Wednesday, April 15th, 2009 Gratitude Therapy

An uplifting report from Paul Broks senior lecturer in psychology (clinical) at the University of Plymouth writing in the Times (10 04 09) on the merits of having an open mind and a little bit of gratitude therapy. In essence the report centres on getting people to focus on everyday things that they are grateful for, as opposed to dwelling on life’s ups and downs. It is understood that embracing this framework will have positive effects.

Broks begins by saying, ‘He’s a sly old dog, Mr Cancer. He sits across the room, unobtrusively most of the time, and keeps a discreet distance in the street. But he’s always there and there’s no doubting his persistence. We’ve had seven years of him, almost. We know what he wants, and we know he’ll never go away, but he’s biding his time, for which I am grateful.

This is a personal and moving journey for Broks as ultimately he is addressing the fact that this is his wife’s third attempt at chemotherapy, capecitabine this time, a drug that is known to be gentler to the system. More specifically there is no hair loss with this drug and crucially no vomiting.

Nevertheless, fatigue, the nausea and the mouth ulcers have been manageable for this couple and with that in mind they have been able to get on with things that are very normal to them i.e. house-hunting. Poignantly for Broks, he says, I’m grateful for that. Thank you, capecitabine.

He goes on that the house hunting has been a welcome distraction, though he points out that they are moving to a town house with a courtyard as his beloved wife is unable to manage what was their big garden anymore. In addition Broks point out that he is no gardener and he will miss the beautiful cherry blossom.

The couple have also become recent grandparents which has coincided with the treatment, for both it has been a better diversion than expected, little Millie is a joy to them both. He says of her, “Your smile is pyrotechnic and I loved the Groovy Grandad birthday card, even though you had nothing to do with it, of course, being only six months old. Thank you. Let’s sit in the shade of the cherry blossom tree. I’ll sing you a lullaby and sip my beer. Marston’s Bitter, my old friend… ”

The enthusiasm of this man is very heart-warming, he adds, ‘enough. enough gratitude. I’d better stop before I explode with happiness. My wife says I’ve been a miserable bugger of late. I should count my blessings. Yeah, yeah, I say, pouring another beer. But she’s right.

There are randomised controlled trials to prove her point. A getting person to focus on everyday things that they are grateful for, rather than life’s hassles, has a measurable and sustained effect on their sense of well-being and happiness. So that’s what I’m doing. It’s simple. You just sit down each evening and list three things that happened during the course of the day for which you are thankful. Do it for a week or two. You can write as much or as little as you like, though people who elaborate tend to gain bigger benefits. Gratitude therapy seems to work.

And if you want a more immediate, more potent, dose of contentment then you might consider doing a “gratitude visit”. Write a letter of appreciation to someone who has been especially kind or generous (or inspirational or forbearing) but whom you have never properly thanked, then deliver it in person and read it aloud. Professor Martin Seligman, former President of the American Psychological Association, has shown that a single gratitude visit can boost happiness and reduce depressive symptoms for up to a month. I find it hard to believe, but then I’m a beer-drinking, male Brit with a low cringe threshold and an aversion to self-help psychology. I’ll stick with the lists for now.

It can be frightening when you wake in the early hours to find Mr Cancer sitting in the shadows. But you come to realise fear is pointless, and so is anger. This is not to say there isn’t fear and anger but it does help somewhat to know that they are pointless. And, in the dark hours, I find - despite my cynical self - that it also helps to count your blessings. Time for a beer.’

Well done, facing adversity is hard enough, but when individuals challenge views and thought processes to the greater good, it is even more remarkable, an inspirational story.

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