Butte-Silver Bow Health Department

The Butte-Silver Bow Health Department is located at 25 W. Front St.

Last week at the Health Department, several of us attended a “lunch ‘n’ learn” session to learn more about gratitude and how “practicing” gratitude can improve our health.

The session and ensuing discussion were obviously timely, as they occurred on Thanksgiving eve and most of us were feeling particularly thankful.

But at the session, we learned that “thankfulness” is just one component of gratitude.

Our presenter, public health nurse Theresa Dennehy-O’Neill, LPN, said Webster’s New World Dictionary defines gratitude as “a feeling of thankful appreciation for favors or benefits received; thankfulness.” But researchers say there’s more to it.

“Thankfulness is when we feel thankful for specific things — thankful that I have a roof over my head or that I just ate a good meal. With gratitude, it isn’t that we’re grateful for any one thing. It’s more a state of our soul, of just being grateful for our existence.”

That’s a quote from Paul Mills, Ph.D., a professor and researcher at the University of California-San Diego who published a study on gratitude in 2015.

Continues Mills’ quote: “As people cultivate thoughts and feelings of thankfulness, it moves their consciousness away from just thankfulness into actual gratitude regardless of what they do or don’t have.”

It was Mills’ research that showed a link between gratitude and health. Mills and his fellow researchers studied 186 men and women and found that subjects who expressed higher levels of gratitude had less depression and anxiety and slept better. And using blood tests, the researchers determined that the subjects who practiced deeper gratitude had biological benefits — lower levels of inflammation and better heart health.

“… A grateful heart is a healthier heart, and that’s what we saw in this study,” Mills said.

O’Neill-Dennehy made a point in telling those who attended her presentation that we can practice gratitude at work — a place where gratitude is not expressed as often as it should be.

She cited an example provided by Wellness Council of America (WELCOA), an organization that focuses on worksite wellness — a video made by co-workers for a woman retiring after 40 years. After viewing the video tribute, the woman sent an email thanking everyone, closing with “I didn’t realize (you) cared this much.”

One could say that lack of gratitude at work has costs — WELCOA says the No. 1 reason people leave their job is because they don’t feel appreciated. WELCOA cited statistics from a survey:

• 60 percent of people say they either never express gratitude at work or do so maybe once a year

• 35 percent believe that expressing any gratitude could lead to co-workers taking advantage of them

• Supervisors tend to believe that gratitude isn’t authentic and are therefore less likely to express it.

WELCOA says there are actually great ways to express gratitude at work, where we really spend as many waking hours as we do at home — one way is to go beyond a mere thank you by being descriptive about why you’re thankful for your co-worker.

Also, make time after meetings so that people can share what’s going right in their lives. (We practiced thankfulness at our lunch ‘n’ learn session and no one was thankful for material things — family, health, our dogs and horses, and a Boston Red Sox World Series victory were among our reasons for being thankful.)

It is also recommended that workplaces formalize gratitude with something visible – like a gratitude bulletin board or a gratitude tree.

We are going to try a few of these things at the Health Department. After all, practicing gratitude is free.

And if it improves our health?

Well, health is wealth.

Gratitude can be produced from the seemingly mundane. In her presentation, O’Neill-Dennehy included a recent group email from our friend Pat Dudley, who is practicing gratitude while battling cancer. In the email, Dudley talked about a recent experience that he likely would have found annoying prior to his illness.

“As I sat and watched some TV before going to bed,” Dudley emailed, “I dozed off in the recliner. When I woke up, my dog Willow had also fallen asleep … with her head on my slippers. She was so tired that she was actually snoring and drooling on my slipper … in the past, I selfishly would have probably moved my foot and woken Willow up to not only put an end to the snoring but also the drooling. That night I just sat there and enjoyed the softness of her head on my foot and the twitching of her paws as she happily chased something in her dreams. What in the past would have been viewed as more of a nuisance was now seen as a blessing. She eventually woke up and as I put her to bed she enveloped me in her deep, loving brown eyes! And I was deeply grateful for — grateful for the simple!”

I like Mills’ definition — like a puppy sleeping on our slipper, gratitude is really the state of our soul.

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Karen Sullivan is Butte-Silver Bow Health Officer and Director of the Health Department. Her column, The Public's Health, appears weekly on The Montana Standard's health page.

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