Dr. Joseph Sirven: The Power of Thanks

Published: Monday, November 23, 2015 - 10:26am
Updated: Monday, November 23, 2015 - 2:36pm
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Dr. Joseph Sirven
Dr. Joseph Sirven

It was the end of the appointment.  My patient was seeing me after successful surgery to eliminate a nonmalignant tumor causing his epilepsy. 

He stood up to leave and said, "Doc, do you mind if I give you a hug because saying thank you just doesn't seem enough?"

Before I could respond, this seven foot giant of a man gave me-- a height challenged doctor-- a bear hug which was sequentially joined in by his wife and his toddler who gently tugged on my pant leg.  The emotional group embrace continued while thanking me for what seemed an eternity. That moment is etched in my memory as one of the highlights of my career.

During this season, too little is said on the simple yet potent health benefits of gratitude.  Being thankful and acting on it by acknowledging others is powerful medicine.  There is even a large-scale research study devoted to the topic. Led by the University of California, Berkeley, this more than $5 million, three-year project intends to expand the scientific understanding of gratitude, particularly in the areas of human health and personal well-being.

The research will use MRI scans and blood work to evaluate whether brain images, and inflammation, change when one practices thankfulness for extended periods of time. 

Research on gratefulness has shown numerous psychological and physical benefits for both the recipient and provider including improved pain tolerance, better sleep, lower blood pressure, less depression and increased longevity.  True, gratitude will not cure all ills but it certainly goes a long way in coping with chronic illness and everyday stress.

So, this holiday, try practicing some “thank yous”, it’ll improve your health. With that, let me practice my own bit of Thanksgiving preventative health. To our patients: thank you for allowing us to enter into your lives to lessen pain, provide clarity, and improve quality of life. Everyone can benefit from the healing power of gratitude.

Dr. Sirven is the chairman of neurology at the Mayo Clinic.