The psychology of gratitude

thank you message

The daily life of a dental student is often about as jam packed as a crowded subway. Trying to juggle our academic, clinical and personal obligations is no easy task and at times, it can be overwhelming. However, to provide our patients with the best possible care, we must care for ourselves first. Believe it or not, one of the best ways to achieve this is by consciously practicing gratitude.

In expressing thanks for what we have and for what others do for us, we are choosing to focus on the positive aspects of our lives. This mentality can be infectious and may improve how we perceive ourselves, bolster our ability to connect with our patients and strengthen our bonds with not only family, but also classmates and faculty.

When we examine the psychology behind this phenomenon, we find that gratitude has wide-reaching positive impacts both on the giver and the receiver. I was recently inspired by the broaden and build theory. This new theoretical perspective, developed by Barbara Fredrickson, professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, proposes that gratitude can broaden people’s repertoire of actions in response to certain thoughts or feelings, thereby building long-lasting personal resources with benefits, such as increased social connections and intellectual vitality. Physiologically, positive emotions have been associated with parasympathetic cardiac control, suggesting an ability to affect blood pressure, immune function and even circadian rhythm. Needless to say, many of these benefits are quite relevant to improving our well-being as dental students and as future health care providers.

To this effect, I believe that a simple practice that we can all do on a daily basis is to express gratitude for who we are, what we have and who we are surrounded by–such as classmates, faculty, patients. But, more importantly, we should express thanks to the people or things that we may not see every day:

  • Family. Remember to tell your loved ones how much you appreciate their support and love. Every so often, consider sending a card in the mail or picking up the phone. Our families understand how busy we are at school, so the time to express your thanks will mean that much more to them.
  • Dental mentors. We’ve all shadowed dentists and most of them wrote the very letters of recommendation that helped get us where we are today. If you told them you would stay in touch, follow through on that promise. Send him or her a brief email every so often to let him or her know how you are doing. They will likely be excited to hear about your experience and may provide further mentorship or professional support that can enrich your academic experience.
  • Opportunity. After a rough day in clinic or even amidst the stress of impending exams, I recommend taking a moment to re-examine the bigger picture. Remember that we have all received a special opportunity to join an incredibly rewarding profession. Reflect on the challenges that you have already and will continue to overcome on your journey. Take advantage of the opportunities around you and make your time as a student count.

I recently wrote thank you notes to two of my favorite faculty members. There was no special reason or occasion: I simply wanted to express my gratitude for their dedication to helping me and my classmates succeed. Both faculty members later told me how much they appreciated my letters and one even revealed that receiving my letter had been the highlight of her week. Knowing that I had made such a positive impact on their days in turn boosted my own happiness and confidence as a student.

As we travel on our respective journeys towards a fulfilling career in dentistry, don’t forget to make it a priority to express gratitude. Broaden your perspectives and build your own happiness from the ground up.

~ David Morrison, East Carolina ’19

David Morrison

David is a first-year dental student at the East Carolina University School of Dentistry. He currently serves as chapter Class Representative. In his spare time, he enjoys running and volunteering in the local community.

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1 Comment

  1. What great wisdom, David, and such a great reminder to count our blessings… it isn’t just a good idea, it’s scientifically validated (and I know you clinicians love the science side). I needed to be reminded of this after a stressful day trying to get my new phone synced with my database. Still doesn’t work, but I’m not going to let the @#$% technology get me down. Rather, I stopped and considered myself grateful for First World Problems like technology glitches. Then, I thanked God for the ability to communicate across so many platforms–like this one! Best wishes to you in your studies… your chapter is lucky to have you.

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