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What’s Your Goal Mama: The Science of Practicing Gratitude

One of the features in the Goal Mama app is the Mom Community, a message board where moms who are part of the Nurse-Family Partnership can connect and share responses to different prompts. One such prompt is all about the practice of gratitude: finding things to be grateful for can get us through challenging times. After emerging from a particularly long and challenging meeting (yes, they even happen at Hopelab) I walked down the hall and caught a glimpse of a board outside of our Goal Mama project room. On the board were postings from the Mom Community, with answers to this very prompt. I took a moment to stop and reflect, hoping that sharing in their gratitude might help shift my attitude.

There were expressions of gratitude for helpful partners, for family members, for health, for secure housing situations, and a touching reflection on one mother’s belief in herself. It was sweet to read all of the contributions to the Mom Community and it certainly did shift my mood.

What are you grateful for?

This prompt channels me back to the time we spent with happiness researcher, Sonja Lyubomirsky. You may recall her expertise is in the science of what makes us happy and one of the major contributors to that is indeed the practice of gratitude. There is some major science behind how expressing gratitude works to make you happier.

Grateful thinking promotes savoring positive life experiences. Taking the time to reflect on what or who we are grateful for allows us to extract satisfaction and enjoyment from our current circumstances. One mother in the community expressed gratitude for the time she was able to spend breastfeeding her child. I can certainly attest to the fact that breastfeeding is not always easy, but she was savoring the feeling of connection she felt with her daughter when she was doing it. And that feeling of gratitude allowed her to maximize the magic of that moment.1,2,3

Expressing gratitude can also help us bolster self-worth and self-esteem. When you realize how much people have done for you or how much you have accomplished, you feel more confident. It’s so easy to get caught up in focusing on your failures, especially for some of the moms in the Nurse-Family Partnership program who are often exposed to adverse experiences and hardship. Expressing gratitude for a supportive partner or family member helps us focus on the things that we are doing right and encourages us to consider what we value about our life at this very moment.

Gratitude can also help us cope with stress and trauma. Expressing gratitude during personal adversity, although extremely difficult, can help us adapt and move on. Interestingly, people instinctively express gratitude when confronted with adversity. In the days immediately following September 11, 2001, gratitude was found to be the second most commonly experienced emotion, after sympathy. Since it seems to be built into our DNA, if we’re dealing with adversity, stress, and trauma, perhaps we should give the practice of gratitude a try when dealing with a major life event. Even after my stressful meeting, just being in the presence of experiencing gratitude helped shift my mood and reduce my stress levels.

Gratitude is another way to savor a positive event. And it’s really great that it can also positively impact our health in all these ways. So whether it’s by starting a gratitude journal, expressing gratitude directly to someone else – by way of letter, text, call, or in person – we know that gratitude can have a profound effect on our health. The practice of gratitude is built into our Goal Mama app, but also our Vivibot chatbot for young adult cancer survivors. The benefits are clearly helpful at shifting mindsets and helping reduce anxiety, depression, and boost positive thinking. So, with that, I ask you, what are you grateful for?

1. Fredrickson, B. L., Tugade, M. M., Waugh, C. E., & Larkin, G. R. (2003). What good are positive emotions in crises?: A prospective study of resilience and emotions following the terrorist attacks on the United States in September 11, 2001. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 365-376.
2. Watkins, P. C., Grimm, D. L., & Kolts, R. (2004). Counting your blessings: Positive memories among grateful persons. Current Psychology: Developmental, Learning, Personality, Social, 23, 52-67.
3. Ibid, Fredrickson et al. (2003).

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