Friday, October 8, 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic has given some individuals a sense of gratitude for their health, having a job, or having their family and or friends. However, for others, their experiences have resulted in reduced feelings of gratitude. Individuals who are grieving the loss of a relationship, job, home, or loved one are likely struggling with feelings of gratitude. In addition, individuals who continue to experience daily inequalities and injustice may find it difficult to remain grateful. liveWELL interviewed Dr. Nicole Del Castillo, MD, MPH, Director of the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at the University of Iowa, for insight on how Hawkeyes can practice gratitude to help change our perspective, provide hope, and protect our mental and emotional well-being.

liveWELL: Nicole, there has been so much information coming out throughout the pandemic on why practicing gratitude is important for our mental and emotional well-being. Can you share more on what gratitude is and some of the benefits for developing a gratitude practice?

Nicole Del Castillo, MD, MPH:

Gratitude is a sense of appreciation of what an individual has and for the goodness that is in their lives both within and outside of oneself. Gratefulness is often a reflection of an emotional response from an occurrence that made a difference in your life. It turns out that there are benefits to regularly acknowledging gratitude. A growing body of research has found an association between gratitude and more positive emotions, improved sleep, decreased stress, decreased physical pain, decreased depression, increased sense of well-being, and strengthened interpersonal relationships.

Gratitude can include memories of the past, current circumstances, or a hopeful, optimistic outlook about the future. It isn’t limited to acknowledging major life events, but also recognizing and appreciating the small things in our lives such as how good a new pair of running shoes feel, that first cup of morning coffee, or noticing a striking sunset.

liveWELL: As we continue to experience change and challenge brought on by the world’s current events, what are some ways that UI faculty, staff, and students can practice gratitude in their daily life to boost their mental and emotional well-being?

Nicole Del Castillo, MD, MPH:

There are so many simple and easy ways that someone can practice gratitude. Start by setting aside a few minutes on a consistent basis to think about what you are grateful for. You can keep a gratitude journal or write down a list of things you are grateful for. Have a goal of naming several things that you appreciate. It doesn’t have to be a long list, maybe three to five things.

Another great way to practice gratitude is to thank someone for something they have done. This can be done in person, through a thank you note or appreciation letter or you could even thank someone mentally. It’s also important to thank yourself. Expressing self-gratitude and thanking yourself for the healthy habits in your life can increase positive feelings and emotions towards yourself.

Prayer, mindfulness meditation, yoga, and volunteering are all activities that can help foster feelings of gratitude. If it is challenging to find things that you are grateful for, try thinking about ways that you can change your perspective. Sometimes putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, checking for silver linings, and savoring good moments may help to inspire gratitude. 

liveWELL: Developing gratitude within the workplace can reduce stress, create more positive emotions, and improve group satisfaction and social relationships. How can UI faculty and staff become gratitude leaders and infuse gratitude into their department, college, or organization?

Nicole Del Castillo, MD, MPH:

Efforts to make individuals feel valued and included creates significant rewards in terms of performance, productivity, and satisfaction. Overall, everyone wants to feel seen, heard and appreciated. Allow space in your workspace for individuals to post positive affirmations or set aside time in a meeting so individuals can practice, receive, and share gratitude. 

Recognizing and celebrating employees for their contributions can provide a positive morale boost.

We do not all express gratitude the same way. Our culture and background can shape how we show gratitude. Due to cultural differences in how gratitude is expressed, it may be helpful for leaders to know their team members appreciation language, which might be things like words of affirmation (public praise) or quality time. Understanding one’s language of appreciation has been shown to improve job satisfaction, but it is also helpful in other settings to improve communication and connections with classmates, colleagues, friends, and family.

liveWELL: What advice do you have for all UI faculty, staff, and students as they consider developing their own gratitude practice?

Nicole Del Castillo, MD, MPH:

There isn’t one specific way to experience or express gratitude. Choose what is meaningful and feels right for you. Don’t force the process – acknowledge what you truly feel grateful for, not what you “should” feel grateful for. It might feel awkward at first if this hasn’t been something you have done regularly, but it becomes more comfortable with practice. There is no correct frequency for practicing gratitude. Some people choose a daily practice, while others may choose weekly. It can take several weeks to experience the ongoing benefits associated with practicing gratitude, but there are also immediate benefits that can be experienced. Practicing gratitude is easy to do and isn’t time consuming. It may contribute to feeling more grounded and hopeful by recognizing the positive aspects that are present in one’s life. Consider giving it a try.

This article first appeared in the liveWELL 2021 Fall Employee Well-Being Newsletter.

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