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The Healing Power of Gratitude

Columnist: Kirk Pappas, M.D.
January, 2017 Issue

Kirk Pappas, M.D.
All articles by columnist

Small and specific gestures of gratitude are the most powerful.

In my May 2015 article, “Resilience as a Vital Sign,” I wrote about the power of resilience and its importance for us both personally and professionally. I related the story of a patient who helped to teach me a lesson about resilience. I saw him again recently and at the end of the visit, like every patient, he thanked me. But this time he was very specific: He thanked me for listening to him as a person and not “a shoulder.”

Once again, he made me ponder the science of “gratitude.” Not coincidentally, this year as part of our training, all Kaiser Permanente physicians participated in a session on resilience with a significant portion focused on gratitude.

How to be grateful

There’s an extensive amount of research being done on the subject in Northern California, especially by Greater Good Science Center in Berkeley ( The website contains a huge volume of support for gratitude as part of healing. One of my favorite pieces from the site is the “Four Great Gratitude Strategies” by Juliana Brienes, which details the following steps:

1. Count your blessings. Whether you experience a good day or a bad day, you can easily count your blessings by keeping a “gratitude” journal. Every day, answer the question, “What am I thankful for?”

2. Mental subtraction. Imagine the most positive life-changing event of your life never happened: How would your life be different? This type of thinking can serve as a reminder to not take the people and the simple joys of our lives for granted.

3. Savor. Realize the pleasure of our senses from smells, sights and tastes we encounter. Have you ever noticed how we stare at our phones when the most beautiful blue sky hangs above us? Or, how many of us eat while not paying attention to our food?

4. Say “thank you.” Small and specific gestures of gratitude are the most powerful. One of our physician leaders once told me to never thank her without being specific about why I was acknowledging her. I took that idea to heart and now hand-write thank you notes to colleagues. Not only am I specific about the action or act I’m grateful for, but I also mention how their action made me feel.

How to express gratitude

“An Experiment in Gratitude/The Science of Happiness” ( is the most powerful evidence for the power of gratitude.

In this study, people were asked to call, email or write a note to a mentor, friend or family member—someone who’d had a great impact on their life and whom they wanted to thank. Those who chose to call were filmed as they spoke to those they wanted to thank. You’re going to want to watch this video to see the genuine tears of joy flowing on both sides of these conversations.

Recently, I decided to do something similar. I was interviewing a physician who’d trained at the same hospital where I’d trained at in Detroit. His letter of recommendation was from someone who’d also trained me as medical student. Later that day, I called the reference and I identified myself as his former medical student. I described my current role and career, and he told me he was proud of me.

I then shared with him a story of compassion that he’s demonstrated to me in 1987. I thanked him for that lesson and the memory I have of that day and explained how that experience permanently influenced me as a physician. There was silence on the other end of the line. I asked him if he was “OK,” and he told me he was going to retire later this year and was grateful for the thousands of physicians he trained. I could hear the tears in his voice.

That patient who thanked me and the physician who trained me both know the key to longevity—the positive emotions from giving and receiving gratitude can make an incredible impact on all our lives.

Kirk Pappas, M.D., is a board certified physical medicine and rehabilitation doctor. He’s the physician-in-chief of the Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Santa Rosa. 




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