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Gratitude: A force multiplier for first responders

One simple way to improve your quality of life now is to take stock of all the blessings you’ve been bestowed, despite everything else

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There’s a potent force multiplier within anyone’s budget and reach that will pay dividends that reverberate positively throughout life. That is gratitude.

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Force multipliers have long been employed to improve outcomes in public safety. From license plate readers to thermal imagers to wearable technologies – any tool for getting more out of what you’ve got finds space in the first responder’s overcrowded tool bag.

“If you think about the job of a cop, it’s really more like several jobs merged together,” said Dale Stockton, a partner at Public Safety Insight, co-founder of the law enforcement safety initiative Below 100 and retired police captain. “One moment you’re consoling a grieving parent, and the next you’re in a foot pursuit or handling a domestic violence call. Add to this the increasingly bureaucratic and legalistic framework under which officers often work and, yeah, you need tools and technologies that are going to make your good efforts go further while keeping you between the lines.”

According to Stockton, there’s one particularly potent force multiplier within anyone’s budget and reach, and which will pay dividends that reverberate positively throughout life. That is gratitude.

“When any one of us takes a moment to take a step back and appreciate this gift of life, everything comes into perspective. It’s not always easy, or even possible sometimes. But, believe me, a little bit of gratitude here and there goes a long way,” said Stockton.

The science of gratitude

Professor Robert A. Emmons, a psychologist at U.C. Davis, has spent much of his career bearing this out. According to Emmons, people who routinely express gratitude see a host of benefits. These benefits, furthermore, are found in children, seniors and everyone in between. These include:

  • Better, more restful sleep
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Increased awareness and engagement
  • Increased confidence and optimism
  • Improved physical health and increased exercise.

Emmons describes gratitude as cultivating an appreciation for what’s good in your life. This is not to pretend life is perfect or without challenges and pains. Gratitude practice is instead a habitual reframing around what’s good, often in the form of a gratitude journal. The next part, according to Emmons, entails accepting that much of what is good in life comes from outside of ourselves. For some, this might be God. For others, this is an appreciation for the joy brought to us by people, places and things.

Again, it’s not always easy. “In law enforcement in particular,” said Stockton, “many are giving up on the profession they once loved.” A survey from Police1 and Calibre Press in June of last year confirms this: 36% would not have chosen the profession if they were to do it over again; 80% said they wouldn’t recommend the job to a son or daughter.

“I know it’s rough out there,” said Stockton. “But we’ve never needed good men and women in uniform more than this moment. This is still honorable, necessary work – even though it’s now a political third rail. Believe me: In my 32 years on the job, I’ve seen the pendulum swing both ways before. And who else is going to push this profession forward if not you?”

Tips for first responders

For those questioning their professional decision or feeling down, Stockton has some suggestions.

1. Write it down. “Why’d you get into public safety? Did you want to help people? Write it down! Did you want a dependable salary? Write it down. Now ask yourself, are the reasons you got into the profession absent now? In my experience, probably not. You can still make a difference every day.”

2. Affirm your gratitude. “Say to yourself, ‘I am grateful for the comradery.’ ‘I’m grateful for the authority that’s been entrusted in me.’ ‘I’m thankful for the support of the broader society and the people I am able to help.’ Say these things out loud.”

3. Laugh. “People say the world is crazy, and it is! Laughter truly is medicine. As I say, police work is like having front-row seats at the 50-yard line of life.”

4. Exercise. “At this point in my life, it’s now a daily walk. And along the way, I’m often reminding myself of things that I’m thankful for. It might sound trivial, but sometimes I’ll say out loud, ‘I’m grateful for the birds that I can hear.’ ‘I’m thankful that I can actually hear.’ ‘I appreciate the sidewalk or the path, the warmth of the sunshine, even the ability to just walk.’”

5. Don’t be selfish. “Inherent in being a first responder is risk. We take on risks all the time and this influences our thinking profoundly. What I implore you to do – especially younger folks, who think you’re invincible – is to not take stupid risks. When one of us gets hurt or worse, it affects so many people. Think of the people in your life and develop a healthy respect for the risks you’re willing to take. At Below 100 training events I’ll often ask, in all seriousness: Who else do you want raising your kids?”

Some might find the concept of gratitude removed from and foreign to the work of law enforcement and first response. Stockton laughs: “I’m grateful that we are all entitled to our opinions! But seriously: Give it a shot and see. There’s no cost to it, and it just might work.”

Being a first responder has never been easy. The routine occupational stress is only exacerbated by recent events: COVID-19, economic uncertainty and political polarization. Stress is a force you don’t want to multiply. One simple way to improve your quality of life now is to take stock of all the blessings you’ve been bestowed, despite everything else. Make a habit of this – a habit of gratitude – and see if it doesn’t make you, and the people around you, happier.

Crawford Coates is the head of marketing at FirstWatch, which provides data analytics to public safety agencies. He is the former publisher of Calibre Press and is a co-founder of Below 100. Coates is the author of “Mindful Responder: The First Responder’s Field Guide to Improved Resilience, Fulfillment, Presence, & Fitness--On & Off the Job.”