I was very fortunate to practice Dentistry in a wealthy town. I had many wealthy patients, including some Billionaires. I always had the keen sense that I was not one of them and some of them were actually difficult to connect with—almost as if the money itself was a barrier to real friendship. At the beginning of my career, I would hear some of these wealthy patients complain about their life circumstances that seemed to me to be trivial. “They should have no real problems in life,” I thought to myself. “After all, they did not have to worry about making payroll or creating enough income to cover the enormous expenses of running a dental practice.” Then I found out that some of them were battling cancer and some had horrendously awful family crises that I did not have. Would I ever want to trade places with them? Not on your life! What Socrates said millennia ago is absolutely true:
“If all our misfortunes were laid in one common heap whence everyone must take an equal portion, most people would be content to take their own and depart1.”
We tend to think our adversities are the worst possible and that no one could possibly understand what we have to deal with. But when we take a look at the adversity of others, our adversities often pale in comparison. I don’t know what it is about the human psyche that tends to focus on the negative, but almost everyone seems to have this tendency. The flip side of this attitude is gratitude.
What is gratitude? “Gratitude is the act of recognizing and acknowledging the good things that happen, resulting in a state of appreciation,” say Sansone and Sansone2 in their 2010 article on gratitude.
So, what should we be grateful for? Well, for starters, we are very lucky to have been bestowed with certain fundamental gifts—good health, a roof over our heads, enough food and water to sustain us, and the freedom to pursue life, liberty, and happiness. We lose sight of the fact that most people in the world do not have access of these basic necessities.
We should also be grateful for the ability to express gratitude. According to Jans-Beken and her associates, gratitude has been found to be beneficially associated with social wellbeing, emotional wellbeing, and psychological wellbeing. It is no surprise that gratitude is an important “predictor of wellbeing and other desirable life outcomes3.”
The expression of gratitude is beneficial for not only for individuals, but for the collective society as a whole. It is no wonder that gratitude is a staple of every religion in the world. Gratitude appears to have a domino effect. If a person experiences gratitude,” says Tiffany Millacci, PHD, “they are more likely to recognize the help and then later reciprocate that help. People who are thanked are presumably more apt to extend help to others in the future. Likewise, people who are not thanked may not be expected to provide reciprocation in the future3.”
All dentists should cultivate an attitude of gratitude. First, be grateful that you are not the one sitting in the dental chair and that you have the chairside ability to relieve suffering and mitigate fear. Be grateful that it is in your power to help someone who is down and out. You cannot possibly know what battles rage inside your patient. Your helping hand and bedside manner just might save a life.
Be grateful that you have a unique ability to elevate and enhance the lives of your staff members: Recognize that without their help, you would be limited in your ability to help others. Never think that only raises and bonuses will make your staff members happy. While extra money is nice to have, gratitude is remembered long after the money is spent.
Be grateful for America: I once heard Condoleezza Rice speak at the ADA Distinguished Speaker Series at Annual Session a few years ago. She said that America is the only country in the history of the world built on an ideal: that all men are created equal and imbued with inalienable rights—the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The genius of what the founding fathers created is what binds together all Americans. What they created was far from perfect, but it is the vision of what they created that sustains and inspires us. That vision has served as a beacon luring countless millions “yearning to breathe free” to America’s shores4. Without that vision it is doubtful that Dentistry in America would have progressed to such incredible heights and prominence throughout the world.
Be grateful for Thanksgiving: The founding fathers of our country recognized the importance of gratitude for a society to thrive. According to American lore, the first Thanksgiving took place in 1621 with the Plymouth colonists sharing a feast with the native American Wampanoag people. That first meal is often idolized as the epitome of gratitude and sharing with others. But not everyone sees it that way. Some associate the colonist’s arrival in Plymouth as the beginning of the decimation of native American peoples. They are right, this is historical fact. They see Thanksgiving as a negative holiday, a day of mourning. But how does this negativity about Thanksgiving serve us in the America of Today? It DOESN’T. We all know about the atrocities and events in American History that we are not proud of.
Sujata Gupta, Social Sciences writer for Science News points out that history is rooted in fact [which is messy and uncomfortable], while memory is rooted in story.5 When shared across individuals, those stories — with their half-truths, exaggerations, and elisions — foster unity. It is the stories we tell that are most important, not the historical facts. The stories remind us of the America we want to create; the America that we want to believe in. The Thanksgiving stories that developed over time are an expression of this ideal.
Thanksgiving was first recognized as a major holiday in 1863—ironically in the middle of the Civil War—by Abraham Lincoln. Thanksgiving is more than just a day to gather for the three “F”s—Feasting, Football and Family. It is a day to take pause from the daily grind and count all the wonderful blessings that we sometimes take for granted. In this respect it is perhaps the most important American holiday. When we celebrate Thanksgiving, we gather together in unity to express our gratitude for the blessings uniquely bestowed on us as Americans.
While the Thanksgiving holiday is an important expression of gratitude, we should not wait for the holiday to roll around in order to do so. “Gratitude,” says Tiffany Millacci PHD, “should be continuous and practiced daily. It is the key to a happy life.”
Be grateful for adversity: But oh–how difficult it can be to express gratitude when confronted with life’s challenges! The profession of Dentistry is one of the most difficult careers and requires steadfast integrity, painstaking responsibility and unwavering dedication to patients, colleagues, and staff members. Dental Professionals have to wear many hats—scientific, humanitarian, and leadership hats–to name a few. We are also expected to wear a smile when feeling unwell, when tragedy strikes, when patient treatment does not turn out as planned, and when we are suddenly left short-handed to a deal with a day sheet full of patients. It isn’t fair that we must deal with these situations, and we have a right to complain.
However, the luxury of complaining can quickly turn into a trap. Thomas Merton once remarked that “those who are not grateful soon begin to complain of everything.” We all know people who perpetually complain. They alienate everybody as they are very unpleasant to be around. (I still laugh when I recall Saturday Night Live’s skit in the ‘70s with Rob and Wendy Whiner. They complained incessantly about everything in the most annoying tone of voice.) Ironically, it is during times of adversity when we most need gratitude. Never forget that many people–some are your patients–have been dealt a far worse hand. We should be grateful for that.
There is a famous quote originally found in Persian Sufi poetry that is often associated with King Solomon. Whatever you are dealing with, “this too shall pass.” An add-on to the quote seems very à propos: “This too shall pass, even if it passes like a kidney stone.” It has been my experience after years of needless worrying that the worst-case scenario rarely materializes.
Remember that without adversity, there can be no personal growth, and perhaps we should be grateful for that. We will emerge from adversity as better, far more empathetic human beings.
Noted author John Ortberg captures the real essence of gratitude best6:
“Gratitude is the ability to experience life as a gift.”
(2Sansone, R. A., & Sansone, L. A. (2010). Gratitude and well being: the benefits of appreciation. Psychiatry (edgmont), 7(11), 18.)
3Millacci, Tiffany Sauber PHD; “What is Gratitude and Why is it so Important;” Feb 28, 2017; scientifically reviewed by Christina R. Wilson PHD; https://positivepsychology.com/gratitude-appreciation/
4Emma Lazarus, “The New Colossus,” 1883.
5Sujata Gupta, Science News; November 21, 2023; https://www.sciencenews.org/article/thanksgiving-myth-persists-history-memory-science].
6Zito, B.; November 8, 2022; 55 Best Gratitude Quotes – Short Quotes About Gratitude. Retrieved on January 3, 2023 from https://news.yahoo.com/55-best-gratitude-quotes-short-172941196.html.
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