A Seattle doctor used gratitude as medicine for years, helping her patients deal with their painful conditions. But she only discovered gratitude's true power when she had to cope with her own son's fatal illness. 

You've probably heard by now that gratitude is good for you. Health professionals and ordinary people have long observed that feeling grateful makes people happier. Brain chemistry explains why, Tanmeet Sethi, director of the Integrated Medicine Fellowship at Seattle's Swedish Hospital told the audience in her recent TEDx Seattle Women talk. 

"Researchers have found that gratitude promotes the release of dopamine," she said. "It makes us happier." And, she said, it's a self-perpetuating process. "The more we make these chemicals, the more our brain wants to find things to be grateful about." In other words, the more we remind ourselves to be grateful, the more spontaneously grateful we become.

And that's a good thing, because gratitude has serious power to make us feel better, even physically better. "When we practice gratitude, we stimulate the same parts of the prefrontal cortex that modulates stress and pain," Sethi said. "It's the same part of our brain that lights up when our pain diminishes because we're with someone we love. When we change our brain, we change our experience."

This is why Sethi uses gratitude practice as part of her work with patients. For instance, she often helps patients strengthen their own gratitude muscles by telling them to find something different to be grateful for each day for a month. And, she has found, gratitude can be a particularly effective way to deal with pain--by saying "thank you" to the pain.

"I had a patient with severe back pain," Sethi said. "She tried saying 'thank you' to the pain, and she was able to relax her abdominal muscles, which had been bracing against the pain. She said it was better than ibuprofen."

That outcome illustrates a simple truth Sethi has discovered, which is that trying to resist pain often makes it much worse. She describes it as an equation: S = P x R, or suffering = pain x resistance. Unfortunately, she said, in our society, we've become too good at resisting or avoiding pain. "We escape into work, television, or the internet," she said. "We self-medicate." On the other hand, "When we see our pain, when we admit it's there, we take care of it and tend to it." This is why thanking the pain is so effective. "'Thank you' removes the fight against the pain," she said.

A fatal diagnosis.

Then came the day Sethi learned that her son Zubin had Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, which she describes as a childlike form of ALS. Children with this disease gradually lose muscular function and usually die before the age of 30. As they tried to cope with the news, Sethi and her husband had a profound realization. "Even if we couldn't find a cure, we had to find healing, and we had to find a way to live with joy."

She reached out to one of her mentors, a woman who had taught her much of the work she does with patients. "She said I had to find gratitude in this situation," Sethi said. "I'm not going to lie, I was mad. I said, 'Really, that's all you've got? I've pulled out all my gratitude for the beautiful things in my life already. I need something more powerful.'"

"She said, 'You've got it all wrong. It's not gratitude for the good things. You have to find gratitude for your son's illness.'" 

This suggestion made Sethi even angrier. But her mentor insisted that Sethi sit by her son's bed every night after he fell asleep and say thank you for his illness. Even if she didn't really feel that way, she had to fake it, the mentor said. And so Sethi did. Sitting by his bed every night, usually in tears, she would say, "Thank you for this illness, thank you for this life, thank you for this path we will walk together."

Over time, she said, she found herself sitting there longer and longer, stroking Zubin's head. To her shame, the pain of knowing her son would die, and the fear of losing him, had caused her to withdraw herself emotionally. But the gratitude practice led her to stop resisting that pain and brought her back to being fully engaged with her son. 

"We all suffer, we all have pain," Sethi said at the end of her talk. "But what if we change the way we relate to pain? What if we say 'Thank you' to it? Saying 'Thank you' is real medicine, and I offer that to you."