Gratitude. It’s a lovely concept, trotted out for the Thanksgiving table and inspiring Instagram posts in beautiful swirly fonts, but is real gratitude possible when you live with rheumatoid arthritis (RA)? You bet! And there’s more: Practicing gratitude may actually help you live better with your chronic illness. Getting there is little more complicated than your fairy godparents waving a magic wand, but not by much. By the end of this article you will have all the tools you need to make real gratitude part of your life.
In case you’re feeling dubious, let me assure you I am not just talking out of my rear end. The research indicates that feeling positive can boost your overall health, reducing your blood pressure and inflammatory markers, as well as leading to better quality of life for people with chronic illness. A study in the journal Health Psychology specifically showed that using gratitude as a coping technique leads to less incidence of depression in people living with arthritis and inflammatory bowel disease. By no means is this suggesting that plastering a smile on your face and soldiering on will cure what ails you. But it is legit support for the concept that deliberately choosing to look for what’s positive and joyful has a direct effect on your mood and ability to cope with pain and illness.
Before I ever looked at an actual study, I experienced the benefits of incorporating gratitude first-hand in my own life. When I was still living with my parents and our family was going through hard times, I was inspired to try a Thanksgiving ritual seen in movies: The one where you go around the table, and each person shares one good thing they noticed that day. It wasn’t until many years later, when I had to rebuild my life from a devastating RA flare, that I fine-tuned that idea into a daily practice. It is now a vital tool in combating the frustration and depression that so often accompany my RA and chronic pain, and it helps me create a life of authentic positivity and joy.
But before I share my tips, a reality check. Practicing gratitude does not make me grateful to have RA. No matter how much work I do, I doubt very much that I’d ever be thankful to have chronic pain and fatigue, use a wheelchair, rely on medication, and see entirely too many doctors—that’s a whole other level of absurdity. However, practicing gratitude has helped me to get to a point where I am grateful for much of what RA has brought into my life, such as where I live, what I do (writing is my dream job), and the person I have become. All these elements in my life have been influenced or directly caused by RA, and I’m grateful every day for that.
The core piece to my gratitude puzzle is to end my day by writing down three things that gave me joy, made me smile, or was helpful. In the past, I’ve used a notebook, sticky notes, even shared it with a friend, but lately, I’ve taken to writing it down in my analog calendar with a fountain pen filled with delicious teal ink that I only use for that purpose. Creating a bit of a ritual with a fancy pen, a beautiful journal, taking just a few minutes to sit quietly with a cup of tea and some candlelight sends a cue to my brain and my emotions that this is an important and really special part of my day.
And yes—it has to be three items. It’s easy to come up with one thing for which you were grateful that day, it may even be fairly effortless to find the second, but three? That’s when you start doing the work of really paying attention to small things that give you joy. That third one often takes some granular thinking and at first, it feels like a stretch, but try to play along. For reference, a few examples of my third gratitude includes seeing a perfect yellowed maple leaf on a rainy sidewalk, pain medication that worked, Lucy the cat licking my nose with her scratchy tongue and making me laugh, the smell of my morning coffee, a lovely chat with a friend on the phone, hearing a toddler giggle—you get the idea. They are small, perfect moments that may only have lasted a few seconds or minutes. Finding these tiny moments gets easier over time and may even create a habit of actively looking for them during the days so you can add them to your list in the evening. When you really get into it, some days those little moments can run into the dozens or more.
If we wait for the big events to be thankful or happy, we might get there once a month (or much less often than that). But when you actively look for tiny pearls of gratitude throughout your day, truly being present when they happen and sinking into the moment, allowing yourself to revel in the wonder, they build on one another day after day. And that is the start of making gratitude and joy part of your life.
Gratitude isn’t a surefire inoculation against struggling. There will always be hardship, flares, difficult life events (hello, pandemic!), and the everyday frustration of living with RA that can sometimes very much get the better of you. But it’s like training a muscle. The more you practice gratitude, repeatedly and purposefully shifting your focus to count your blessings (if you will), and very deliberately looking for moments in your day that have a bit more sparkle or soothed your pain, the easier everything will be the next time life throws you a curveball. You don’t have a choice when it comes to RA, but you have the power to improve how you cope with it. And it can start with gratitude.