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Column: Learning to be thankful can improve your life

Jonna Kane MacDougall
November 23, 2011
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Quality of LifeI was pleased to learn about the attorney wellness initiative currently being undertaken by the Indiana State Bar Association. The organization hopes to promote a healthier lifestyle for those who work in the legal profession by “encouraging positive lifestyle changes through increased physical activity, stress reduction, healthier eating and tobacco cessation.” This much-needed effort for Hoosier attorneys, paralegals, legal staff members and law students could go a long way in helping legal professionals to lead longer and happier lives.

According to research conducted within the past decade, one way to boost your immune system and also relieve stress is to develop an “attitude of gratitude” in your daily life. It seems appropriate to investigate this form of stress relief now in the days surrounding the Thanksgiving holiday.

A relatively recent movement in the world of psychology called “positive psychology” has produced research that shows that people who are routinely grateful for what they have in life are healthier than those who do not make a conscious effort to acknowledge the positive aspects of their lives. Much of this research has been done by University of California Davis professor Robert Emmons. According to Emmons, grateful people take better care of themselves and engage in more protective health behaviors like regular exercise, a healthy diet and regular physical examinations.

Studies in the past few years have shown that consciously grateful people are more optimistic and more energetic. They are also less likely to be depressed, thereby avoiding a plethora of physical ailments that coincide with depression.

We all know that stress can make us sick – it’s linked to several leading causes of death, including heart disease and cancer. Interestingly, gratitude can help us better manage stress. According to Emmons, gratitude research suggests that feelings of thankfulness have a significant positive effect in terms of coping with daily problems and stress.

So why not start this Thanksgiving to become a more grateful person? Don’t turn off the gratitude after the turkey is gone and the football games are over. Below are some methods to try to develop an attitude of gratitude.

Maintain a gratitude journal. Research shows that those who keep gratitude journals on a weekly basis feel better about their lives as a whole and maintain greater optimism about the future.

Create a list of all of the good things in your life. Review the list and determine if you take these things for granted. Become more mindful about the wonderful things that exist in your life.

If you really want to be creative, write down something about your life that appears, on its face, to be very negative. Think about ways that you could turn that negative into a positive, ways that you could make the negative issue less pervasive in your life or as a friend told me recently, “I try to find a way to hit the ‘minimize button, like the one on my computer, to help me keep negative issues in perspective.’”

Positive self-talk is also a good way to acknowledge the positive developments in your life. If you find it hard to identify beneficial things in your life right now, start small. I often say thank you, out loud, when I approach a traffic light that turns green right in front of me. (Okay, so maybe that sounds a little desperate for good things – but it works!)

Find ways to be thankful for the people in your life – even those people who drive you crazy. Remember that the really cranky, nasty person at work helps you to develop tolerance and patience. It’s all in how you look at it.•

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Jonna Kane MacDougall, an Indianapolis attorney, is assistant dean for external affairs and alumni relations at the Indiana University School of Law – Indianapolis and a former law school career services director. A professional career/life coach, MacDougall can be contacted at 317-370-4361 or via email at whatsnextcoaching@gmail.com. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s.

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