Three Lessons About Gratitude From Living with a Chronic Illness

No matter the difficulty of your circumstances, here are three strategies to expand your capacity for gratitude.

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It’s easy to be thankful when luck is on our side and all seems to be going our way. What’s tricky is learning how to cultivate gratitude in times of unexpected difficulties and hardship. After developing a disabling chronic illness, I’ve gotten familiar with disappointment, loss and struggle. Along the way, I’ve learned some techniques to focus on the positive, even when life seems at its most challenging.

Savor every good moment

Today’s rapid-fire pace can make us feel constantly behind the eight ball. When my chronic migraines forced me to suddenly slow down, I didn’t find immediate relief in a gentler rhythm. Days blended into one another, with the passage of time measured in pain flare-ups rather than meetings or milestones. Instead of a mindless haze of busyness, I was lost in a daze of pain and uncertainty about the future.

Mindfulness has been a savior. Getting grounded in present-moment awareness can disrupt our autopilot mode and counter natural negativity bias. Next time you have a pleasant moment or experience, try fully immersing yourself in every second. Engage with your five senses, whether it’s truly tasting your favorite tea or focusing on the bright colors surrounding you during a walk outside. The practice of relishing the joy and beauty in every day moments is essential to building up our gratitude bank over time. Then, the next time you feel as if things are going from bad to worse, you can dip into these memories as a helpful reminder of how to look around you and see what’s going right.

Appreciate those who lift you up

This year, I’ve been reminded how special it is having a support system to rely on. Becoming a literal homebody naturally pruned my social life, as fair-weather friends and acquaintances lost touch and drifted away. In the process, I realized my core circle of dear friends and family was what mattered: no matter how I felt, these loyal supporters brightened my days, consoled me and enriched my life.

Despite this, being alone a lot of the time has also been, well, lonely. While social media is a major FOMO trigger, it can also be a huge source of community. I found enormous solace connecting with others online also impacted by chronic illness, gaining unexpected solidarity, strength and friendship.

Look around you and assess who actively lifts you up, energizes you and helps you weather life’s storms. These are the people who deserve your gratitude. And if you realize you don’t like what you see, go online – there’s a world of people waiting to meet you.

Celebrate all you CAN do

Society tells us that the status quo isn’t good enough – that what we are and have is insufficient. After resigning from my job and losing my previous levels of functionality, I had a reckoning with this ideal of self-improvement. Why focus on everything we can’t do instead of leaning into our strengths? By shifting my attention to everything I’m currently capable of, incremental progress seems like victory and not defeat.

Striving for improvement is wonderful and often necessary, but don’t lose sight of your current achievements and strengths in the process. List a few things you take pride in, from skill-set to hobbies. Next time you’re feeling self-critical for coming up short, see if you can appreciate all that makes you uniquely you.

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