Dr. Abby Horton in front of Alabama Nursing sign

Q&A: Professor, Health Coach Shares the Power of Gratitude 

Research increasingly shows that practicing gratitude has positive benefits on an individual’s mental well-being. But how does one do that? 
Dr. Abby Horton, assistant professor in UA’s Capstone College of Nursing, is also a certified health and life coach. In addition to teaching in CCN and Honors College, she is a WellBAMA wellness class educator for the department of wellness and work-life. She explains potentials to explore and pitfalls to avoid when working to build more gratitude. 

How does one become an expert in gratitude?  

There are academic experts in gratitude. Dr. Robert A. Emmons, professor at University of California, Davis is a leading expert on gratitude, how it affects resilience and our well-being. Resilience is a part of my research in mental health.  

In my own life, after having a series of health struggles I decided to undertake a wellness journey and became a certified health and life coach. Learning gratitude was a large part of that journey.  

Why is gratitude important?  

It’s proven that the health benefits of gratitude are immense, especially in stress reduction. When we manage our stress better, in all the ways we measure our health, we improve. Practicing gratitude betters our lives physically, socially, mentally and spiritually. It heals and energizes.  

Can we be grateful when things are not great at all?  

We can be grateful even when things aren’t going great, and I think that’s so powerful. Happiness follows gratefulness, not the other way around. Meaning and good can come out of the hard times. That doesn’t mean you can’t feel bad about the tough times. This isn’t toxic positivity, which focuses only on the good without acknowledging how you really, truly feel. When practicing gratitude, you can feel what you feel.  

What if we just don’t feel grateful?  

We won’t always feel the emotion of gratitude, but we can learn it as a skill. After a while, it becomes a mindset as we learn to reframe our thoughts. During a hard time, a positive reframe would be, “I am strong, and I can cope and take positive action.” If that feels like too much, a neutral reframe would be, “This thing is really hard, but I’ve survived until now, I can keep surviving.”  The circumstances may not change but your mindset will. 

How does one learn to practice gratitude?  

When we focus on the good and positive, we will see more of the good and positive. Every day find things for which you are grateful. Be specific. Instead of “I’m grateful for my family” say “I’m grateful my spouse made me coffee this morning.” Don’t make it a task to cross off a to-do list. Do it authentically. If you can’t find three things to be grateful for, find one.  

Also, focus on expressing gratitude to others. Write the note, give the shout-out, pay the compliment.  

Is a gratitude journal a requirement?  

Research has shown that writing things down activates the reticular activating system in the brain, which helps encode those things in our long-term memory. While I love journaling, if you’re just not up to it yet, then say to yourself what you are grateful for, even if it’s one thing right before you go to bed. There are many ways to develop the skill of gratitude. Journaling is just one.  

Close up of woman writing in a gratitude journal
While journaling has many benefits, you can express gratefulness in several ways.

Thanksgiving is coming, and while some people are comfortable with open sharing of thanks and gratitude, others are not. What’s your advice?  

The intention is to focus on gratefulness, but putting people on the spot may lead to resentment or other strong emotions. Make sharing gratitude at the Thanksgiving table voluntary. Make your practice “fun, free, and easy” so that it is both achievable and sustainable.  

Also, gratitude is not just a Thanksgiving or November practice. It is most effective as a daily practice all year long, and doesn’t always have to be shared publicly, it can be private. 

What’s the best way to express gratitude publicly?  

Gratitude and self-reflection go hand in hand. Ask yourself, “what is the purpose of sharing my gratitude?” This will help guide your decision-making on whether to post on social media. And, if you decide to post publicly, avoid the me-first, me-focused mindset. Share your gratitude from the heart and give context, if possible, for why you feel led to highlight your moment of gratitude. 

Any concluding thoughts to share on gratitude?  

When the world feels like it’s falling apart that is when we need gratitude the most.