How Practicing Gratitude Can Help You Heal

Swept away like breadcrumbs in the moment, I decided to gather up the bits and pieces of my life to see if the trail ended in gratitude. Constantly asking my kids to put a little “gr” in front of their attitude, it was time for me to put up or shut up. To accomplish this, I engaged in a simple gratitude practice I heard about through CaringBridge.

A study by University of Minnesota researchers of CaringBridge users who participated in a gratitude practice showed reduced stress and increased overall wellbeing. Who couldn’t benefit from that?  So over the course of 21 days in March 2020, I did these four things:

  1. At the end of each day, think back on three things you’re grateful for, no matter how small.
  2. Write them down on paper.
  3. Also write down a reason why you feel grateful for each thing on the list.
  4. Each week, look back on what you’ve written.

To download the four step gratitude practice, click here.

The Act of Practicing Gratitude

This recipe seemed easy enough to follow, until the coronavirus pandemic set in. Perfect timing for a gratitude practice, but harder work. What I didn’t account for was the difficulty in finding things to be grateful for when everyone in my family was feeling so uncertain, confused, angry, and, well, together!

To better understand how gratitude works, I looked to the root of the word, “gratis,” which happens to be the same root as the word “grace.” Grace invokes a sense of wonder.

Like grace, gratitude cannot be requested or demanded or earned. Unlike indebtedness, gratitude neither demands a “thank you” nor dissipates after it is said. Finally, gratitude cannot be paid back, only forward.

Writing Forms ‘Muscle Memory’

Finding success in my gratitude practice would require more than the requisite 21 days to form any habit. The tactile exercise of writing things down each day formed some “muscle memory” that propelled me forward.

It was easy to write down things for which I was grateful: a family singalong in the car; that my college kids shared in a family meal; that I did not burn our last batch of Sweet Martha’s chocolate chip cookies. But articulating why I felt grateful called for introspection.

How Many Days to Gratitude?

Asking why requires a pause, grants the opportunity to see a moment in time as an unearned gift; asking why forges gratitude. How many days to gratitude, a change in the way I perceived things, an acceptance of the world as it is?

How do we gather the bits and pieces that add up to the “good life,” held in our core, a place we can call “gratitude?”

The experience reminds me of the tune Seasons of Love, by Jonathon Larson, in which he measures a year in minutes, 525,600 moments: “in daylights, in sunsets, in midnights, in cups of coffee, in inches, in miles, in laughter, in strife.” Ticking them off in my mind was one thing, but only some of them stuck, had meaning, were worth remembering.

A Simple Moment of Pure Grace

To break up our time of sheltering in place, as was required by state guidelines, we drove to our family cabin north of the Twin Cities. During the car ride, we heard that singer Kenny Rogers had passed away.

My teen-age girls did not know we’d lost a country-music legend, so I downloaded Rogers’ song The Gambler, turned up the volume and started singing with my husband: “You gotta know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em …”

One daughter recognized the song and joined in. By the third time through the chorus, all of us were singing in harmony. The scene only lasted 5 minutes. But we haven’t had a family singalong since the kids were little, and with our youngest soon off to college, I can’t imagine the circumstances in which it would happen again.

It was a simple moment of pure grace.

Put Your Emotions in a New Order

Every night at the cabin we played a board game called Sequence. The board is covered in pictures of playing cards. The object is to match the cards in your hand with those on the board.

As you discard, you lay a chip on the matching card on the board. The player who can form a sequence of five chips in a row wins the game.

Playing Sequence requires focus, and offers a distraction from the tough parts of a day. Like a gratitude practice, the game creates the space for you to lay down your chips and put your emotions in a new order.

Conversation flows in unimagined ways. Every turn allows you to draw a new card and to see the board from a different angle. No one knows what’s in the cards going forward, but there is always another card in your hand to play.

Gratitude comes from knowing there is always another card to play. It builds resilience to weather life’s difficult moments.

Practicing Gratitude Takes Practice

Playing Sequence with my family will always make my nightly gratitude list. I hope it will always make my family’s gratitude list, too.

The recipe for gratitude is not hard to follow, it just takes practice. Now when I gather the bits and pieces of my life, they add up to a little more. The result is a cumulative positive effect on my being. Gratitude.

About the Research

Knowing that millions of people around the world use CaringBridge, and that its use can have a profound impact on healing, scientists from research institutions including the University of Minnesota and Mayo Clinic have been studying the effects on CaringBridge users who have participated in such practices as gratitude, meditation and reflective writing. In an academic paper titled, Outcomes of a Gratitude Practice in an Online Community of Caring, by Mary Jo Kreitzer, PhD, RN, FAAN, patients and family caregivers who engaged in a 21-day gratitude practice reported reduced stress and fear, improved sleep and increased overall wellbeing. Dr. Kreitzer is also on the advisory panel for How We Heal, an ongoing project by CaringBridge.

Start a CaringBridge Site

When you’re going through a health journey, you have a lot on your plate. CaringBridge replaces the time-consuming task of sharing your health news over and over. It’s a free, easy to use online journal for sharing health information with your family and friends.  

Don’t go through your health journey alone.

You can stay connected to friends and family, plan and coordinate meals, and experience love from any distance.

All of this is ready for you when you start your personal CaringBridge site, which is completely free of charge, ad-free, private and secure. Don’t spend another minute alone!

About the Author

Shelly Gill Murray is a writer, wife and mom of three, based in Minneapolis. Her work has been published nationally in journals and anthologies.

Main Photo Caption: Over the 21 days that Shelly Gill Murray participated in a gratitude practice, simple moments of pure grace came at the most unexpected times when she was with her husband, Brian, and their kids

  • Ken Charbat

    Truly inspiring. Thank you,

  • sskinner

    It is nice to see many different faces on something like this. It shows that anyone from any culture can heal, if they chose to take that first step

  • Betty Danielson

    Great article Shelly! I also loved seeing this beautiful picture of you and your family. You have been in our prayers for years.

  • Ellen Jo DeSantis

    The gratitude list is so important as a reminder. These are absolutely wonderful suggestions for daily mental health.

  • Tonya

    Love this so much. Thanks for sharing.

  • Betty Fiori

    Enjoyed gratitude article. Gr is the beginning of great. Attitude finishes off attitude. Gratitude is the word that results. We have gratitude for our lives.

  • Bill Horne

    Ms. Murray has composed a wonderful, uplifting article on gratitude. I am so glad that she did this.

  • Janet Marten

    This was a very helpful article because it blessed me to read about her experiences and also to learn a practical method for practicing gratefulness. As a Christian I am reminded of the Bible verse that instructs us to “be thankful in all circumstances “. This method put legs to that verse. Thank you!!

  • Suzanne Woods

    I also loved this. Thank you! Two parts that made a difference to me–recognizing that the pause that asking why allows is really important. The pause and thinking are more important than coming up with the whole truth of why. Also, the idea that the board game is also a pause gives me new patience with people I know who love similar games.

  • Mary Heaton

    this is just what i needed to read today ——— it’s a huge moment of grace and gratitude for me !!! — thank you shelly — wow i can’t say enuf of how i appreciate your words and i’m going to do the journal starting now !!!

  • Sandy D

    I used Caring Bridges back in 2006 when I had to have a nonmalignant brain tumor removed. It was the start of a complete transformation of who I am. I can’t thank you or the friends and family that stayed in contact with me enough. But I can and do pass on Caring Bridges to anyone I hear that is going through health challenges. I am blessed thanks to many.

  • Catherine Ivy

    I hope to start a gratitude journal today…thank you!

  • Linda Reinemann

    Was introduced to this years ago by a program Oprah had on, Gratitude Journaling. Have used this many years but sometimes I forget or get lazy. Thanks for the reminding to get back into this great practice. It does make a huge difference.

  • Patti Carroll

    Thanks for the advice. It makes sense. Take care

  • Chris welty

    Great idea for everyone. Thanks for sharing.

  • Joseph Leonard Scarpaci

    In that spirit, I note that in my yoga practices/classes I ask yogis to pose two points of gratitude: when is global (just more broadly than one’s self) and another intention that is personal. Namaste!

  • Pat young

    Excellent read! And I now understand how to play Sequence ?. The website was a great informer when a young friend was ill. Thanks.

  • George Stewart

    Well said, we find gratitude combined with the compassion to help others enriches ones life.

  • JoAnn H Eichten

    I really like the idea of a gratitude journal for 21 days. It gives a start and an end to a “project” to see if I can improve my life and my attitude. It is really an attitude that God wants us to have, and will point us to him. I’m going to try it!JoAnn

  • Jeanne K. Foley

    So true! So needed in this time! Thanks for posting.

  • Eugene DeHoogh

    This is so true and significant. We need to learn how to express gratitude better and more meaningfully. Thank you for these insights, and encouragement. We also need to pray better prayers of gratitude. Gratefully, Eugene DeHoogh

  • Taki Donovan

    Thank you for fleshing out the details of how you did this- a little concrete advice? reflection? commentary? goes a long way towards enabling others to make this a practice instead of just a vague intention of just thinking about doing this. Very helpful, and a great way to reset and restart- thanks again.

  • Kathy Buchholz

    Shelly, Your writing was both thought provoking and inspirational. Thank you for sharing.Kathy Buchholz

  • Annette Gill

    Thank you for those thoughts to ponder during these trying times.❤️

  • Beth Miller

    Such a neat idea.

  • Jhon Edmar

    thanks for information

  • Karlyn Coleman

    I believe in the power of faith, hope, and love. Caring Bridge allows these three things to flourish. I know that is healing and powerful for my sister to see all those there hoping and praying and sending her love. It made a difference. It carries people when they are exhausted from fighting disease.