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The Science of Gratitude

Updated: Jun 28, 2021

Gratitude Medicine is real, and it really works.

Before you continue to the Article, don't forget to tune in to our Latest episode, 'Conversation with Dr. Tanmeet Sethi'

About Dr. Tanmeet Sethi
  • Dr. Tanmeet Sethi, MD is an Integrative Family Physician, writer, and TEDx speaker

  • Says gratitude can strengthen our immune systems & improve sleep

  • Multiply the good things and transform your perspective, creating something; the psychologists call a "spiral of joy”prefer a trendy postcard look or you’re going for a more editorial style blog - there’s a stunning layout for everyone.”

Dr. Sethi’s rational explanation on gratitude is that neuroscience proves that we make hormones when we feel gratitude. This also includes the nurturing hormone, oxytocin, and the one we release when we hug.

"Researchers have found that gratitude promotes the release of dopamine," she said. "It makes us happier." And, she said, it's a self-perpetuating process. "The more we make these chemicals, the more our brain wants to find things to be grateful about." In other words, the more we remind ourselves to be grateful, the more spontaneously grateful we become. When we practice gratitude, we stimulate the same parts of the prefrontal cortex that modulates stress and pain," Sethi said. "It's the same part of our brain that lights up when our pain diminishes because we're with someone we love. When we change our brain, we change our experience."

Dr. Sethi has discovered a simple truth, which is that trying to resist pain often makes it much worse. She describes it as an equation: S = P x R, or suffering = pain x resistance. Unfortunately, she said, in our society, we've become too good at resisting or avoiding pain. "We escape into work, television, or the internet," she said. "We self-medicate." On the other hand, "When we see our pain, when we admit it's there, we take care of it and tend to it." This is why thanking the pain is so effective. "'Thank you' removes the fight against the pain," she said.

A Fatal Diagnosis:

Dr. Sethi has used gratitude as medicine for years, helping her patients deal with their painful conditions. But she only discovered gratitude's true power when she had to cope with her own son's fatal illness.

In 2011 when Dr. Tanmeet was in Cincinnati, travelling in a shuttle van towards the airport. The hour was probably the most difficult one of her life. Dr. Tanmeet, her husband and her son, Zubin were returning from the children’s hospital.

They were exhausted after spending 9 hours running tests, scanning x-rays and consulting doctors. Zubin was diagnosed with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, which she describes as a childlike form of ALS. The only thing running through their minds was about the uncertainty of their son’s cure and what if they couldn’t find the treatment program for their child.

As the airport approached, they began unloading their bags and started getting out of the shuttle. The driver gave the hand in getting the luggage and as soon as doctor’s husband extended his hand with money for the tip, the driver replied:

"Oh no, for trips from the Children's Hospital, I don't take tips. It's the only thing I can do to put ease in your day." 💌

Saying so, he drove away, before Dr. Tanmeet could learn who he or his name was. The tip was least of the worries for doctor and her family, yet the gratitude and the kindness of the driver lightened their hearts and released them of their troubles for that moment.

As they tried to cope with the news, Sethi and her husband had a profound realization. "Even if we couldn't find a cure, we had to find healing, and we had to find a way to live with joy. Sethi fatigue in this struggle to fight made her weak and that’s when she reached out to one of her mentors, a woman who had taught her much of the work she does with patients. "She said I had to find gratitude in this situation," Sethi said. "I'm not going to lie, I was mad. I said, 'Really, that's all you've got? I've pulled out all my gratitude for the beautiful things in my life already. I need something more powerful.'"

"She said, 'You've got it all wrong. It's not gratitude for the good things. You have to find gratitude for your son's illness”. This suggestion made Sethi even angrier. But her mentor insisted that Sethi sit by her son's bed every night after he fell asleep and say thank you for his illness. Even if she didn't really feel that way, she had to fake it, the mentor said. And so Sethi did. Sitting by his bed every night, usually in tears, she would say, "Thank you for this illness, thank you for this life, thank you for this path we will walk together."

Over time, she said, she found herself sitting there longer and longer, stroking Zubin's head. To her shame, the pain of knowing her son would die, and the fear of losing him, had caused her to withdraw herself emotionally. But the gratitude practice led her to stop resisting that pain and brought her back to being fully engaged with her son.

"We all suffer, we all have pain Sethi said "But what if we change the way we relate to pain? What if we say 'Thank you' to it? Saying 'Thank you' is real medicine, and I offer that to you."

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