by Marlana Li, MD
Sometimes the rigors of medical training and practice can make one wonder “why did I do this?”. More reports and studies are coming out that reveal that medical students, residents and attendings are burning out, are depressed and stressed, and thinking of quitting medicine altogether. How do we address this crisis? One of my answers is having an “attitude of gratitude”.
“Gratitude” comes from the Latin word “gratia,” which means grace, or gratefulness. When you express gratitude, you recognize the good in your life, and something larger than yourself, be it your community, nature, or a higher power.
I know it may sound overly simplistic, but I can assure you that being grateful works when it comes to improving your mood, your enthusiasm, and your health. It has worked for me and many of my colleagues. You don’t have to take my word for it; several studies show that having an attitude of gratitude wards off burnout, facilitates healing and relationship building, and prevents depression and other diseases; a few references are at the bottom of this blog.
Some tips I have for you: even if it is something seemingly trivial, write down what you are grateful for: like making it to work safely, or like having electricity, the freedoms we have as Americans, or the privileges we have as doctors. It may be helpful to write “thank you notes,” and also to daily journal specific instances for which you are grateful, such as receiving a gift or positive review from a patient, making one of your patients or staff members smile, an instance you made a difference, or an event/ person that positively impacted you. You can also give thanks for the people in your life: those mentors, friends, family members or others along the way who encouraged you, prayed for you, uplifted you, and helped you get to where you are today.
Sure, some days it can be a real struggle to find anything to be happy or grateful about, but it does help to know, “this too shall pass”, and you can find things to be grateful for, even if it requires some effort: examples may include the sound of birds chirping, the smell of fresh mountain air, the taste of fresh fruit, the warmth of a hug, etc. And if you still struggle, please ask for help! For me, my faith in a gracious God, has helped me in good times and bad; He has given me innumerable blessings to count, many of which I am probably not aware. Even if you are not a religious or spiritual person, you can reflect on happy memories, make new ones, and find meaning and purpose; life is precious! Enjoy each moment!
One of the reasons I go on international medical mission trips, is that doing so increases my gratitude as no other experience can. It restores my joy and passion for family medicine, and for service in general. I am serving in Nicaragua this November for the second time; I am humbled by the poverty (it is the 2nd poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, behind Haiti), and yet am amazed at their gratitude and hospitality to us foreigners. I stop myself when I feel ungrateful or stressed, realizing how spoiled I am compared to those who live in a mud hut, lack access to education, suffer from parasites and preventable diseases, and lack of food or even clean water. The patients we serve often thank us for all we do for them; I feel like telling them, “No, thank you for allowing me this opportunity to learn, grow, serve, and be made to feel welcome and cared for.”
I admittedly have had days that were stressful, disappointing, upsetting, frustrating, scary, or just plain awful (it’s harder to be grateful when I’m sleep-deprived and hungry), but then I realized that despite it all, I could not imagine doing anything else. I love being a family physician; I love the challenge of solving problems, diagnosing diseases, and collaborating with patients of all ages to find a solution that works for them. I derive immense joy in bringing new life in the world when I deliver babies, giving hope to a patient suffering from a chronic illness, and teaching students and residents. And I am grateful when I can assist my patients, students, residents, and colleagues in enhancing their wellness: mind, body and spirit.
So this holiday season, I encourage you to start the practice of maintaining an “attitude of gratitude”: daily count your blessings, renew your joy and passion for medicine and the other things in life that you love. Share your joy with others; gratitude is the kind of infection that we DO want to spread!
Marlana Li, MD is a Family Medicine Physician and an assistant professor (clinical) in the Department of Family & Preventive Medicine at the University of Utah.
Emmons RA, et al. “Counting Blessings Versus Burdens: An Experimental Investigation of Gratitude and Subjective Well-Being in Daily Life,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology(Feb. 2003): Vol. 84, No. 2, pp. 377–89.
Grant AM, et al. “A Little Thanks Goes a Long Way: Explaining Why Gratitude Expressions Motivate Prosocial Behavior,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (June 2010): Vol. 98, No. 6, pp. 946–55.
Lambert NM, et al. “Expressing Gratitude to a Partner Leads to More Relationship Maintenance Behavior,” Emotion (Feb. 2011): Vol. 11, No. 1, pp. 52–60.