Thanksgiving can be about more that putting up with annoying relatives, gorging on a dead bird, and passing out in a football-enhanced stupor. In fact, Thanksgiving can be an opportunity to practice one of the most powerful health-promoting actions that exist.
Gratitude, it turns out, makes you happier and healthier. If you invest in a way of seeing the world that is mean and frustrated, you’re going to get a world that is more mean and frustrating. But if you can find any authentic reason to give thanks… anything at all that you’re grateful for in your life or in the world and put your attention there, an overwhelming body of research indicates you’re going to experience more joy, vitality, and inner peace.
Gratitude doesn’t just make things feel better – it also makes them get better. According to recent research, gratitude is good for your physical, emotional, and mental health. People who express more gratitude have fewer aches and pains, better sleep, and stronger mental clarity.
If Thankfulness Were A Drug…
“If [thankfulness] were a drug,” Dr. P. Murali Doraiswamy, head of the division of biologic psychology at Duke University Medical Center, tells us: “it would be the world’s best-selling product with a health maintenance indication for every major organ system.”
As Dr. Doraiswamy explains, studies have shown how the expression of gratitude leads to measurable effects on multiple body and brain systems.
- Mood neurotransmitters (serotonin, norepinephrine)
- Reproductive hormones (testosterone)
- Social bonding hormones (oxytocin)
- Cognitive and pleasure related neurotransmitters (dopamine)
- Inflammatory and immune systems (cytokines)
- Stress hormones (cortisol)
- Cardiac and EEG rhythms
- Blood pressure, and
- Blood sugar
Does Gratitude Really Cause Good Fortune?
When I heard all this, I was skeptical. What if people who are fortunate, or who are particularly healthy, just feel more grateful? Does gratitude really cause good fortune, or is it just a byproduct?
The answer surprised me, and it may surprise you, too.
In a study conducted by Robert A. Emmons, Ph.D., at the University of California at Davis and his colleague Mike McCullough at the University of Miami, randomly assigned participants were given one of three tasks. Each week, participants kept a short journal. One group briefly described five things they were grateful for that had occurred in the past week, another five recorded daily hassles from the previous week that displeased them, and the neutral group was asked to list five events or circumstances that affected them, but they were not told whether to focus on the positive or on the negative.
Keep in mind that these groups were randomly assigned and that nothing about their lives was inherently different, other than the journaling they were doing.
The types of things people listed in the grateful group included: “Sunset through the clouds;” “the chance to be alive;” and “the generosity of friends.”
And in the hassles group, people listed familiar things like: “Taxes;” “hard to find parking;” and “burned my dinner.”
After ten weeks, participants in the gratitude group reported feeling better about their lives as a whole and were a full 25 percent happier than the hassled group. They reported fewer health complaints, and they were now exercising an average of 1.5 hours more per week.
In a later study by Emmons, people were asked to write every day about things for which they were grateful. Not surprisingly, this daily practice led to greater increases in gratitude than did the weekly journaling in the first study. But the results showed another benefit: Participants in the gratitude group also reported offering others more emotional support or help with a personal problem, indicating that the gratitude exercise increased their goodwill towards others, or more technically, their “pro-social” motivation.
What’s The Brain Science Behind All This?
Neuropsychologist Rick Hanson puts it this way: “The neurons that fire together, wire together… The longer the neurons [brain cells] fire, the more of them that fire, and the more intensely they fire, the more they’re going to wire that inner strength –- that happiness, gratitude, feeling confident, feeling successful, feeling loved and lovable.”
And what’s going on in the brain leads to changes in behavior. Grateful people tend to take better care of themselves and to engage in more protective health behaviors, like regular exercise and a healthy diet. They’re also found to have lower levels of stress. And lowered levels of stress are linked to increased immune function and to decreased rates of cancer and heart disease.
So it seems, you take better care of what you appreciate. And that extends to your body, and also to the people around you.
Good For Your Relationships
Not only does saying “thank you” constitute good manners, but showing appreciation can also help you win new friends, according to a 2014 study published in Emotion.
The study found that thanking a new acquaintance makes them more likely to seek an ongoing relationship. So whether you thank a stranger for holding the door or you send a quick thank-you note to that co-worker who helped you with a project, acknowledging other people’s contributions can lead to new opportunities.
In a 2012 study conducted by the University of Kentucky, study participants who ranked higher on gratitude scales were found to have more sensitivity and empathy toward other people and a decreased desire to seek revenge.
But What About Tough Times?
As I was learning about this research, I was still a bit skeptical. Life can at times be brutal. Sometimes just surviving can feel like an accomplishment. Can you really feel grateful in times of loss?
Yes, you can.
In fact, findings show that adversity can actually boost gratitude. In a Web-based survey tracking the personal strengths of more than 3,000 American respondents, researchers noted an immediate surge in feelings of gratitude after Sept. 11, 2001.
Tough times can actually deepen gratefulness if we allow them to show us not to take things for granted. Dr. Emmons reminds us that the first Thanksgiving took place after nearly half the pilgrims died from a rough winter and year. It became a national holiday in 1863 in the middle of the Civil War and was moved to its current date in the 1930s following the Depression.
Why would a tragic event provoke gratitude? When times are good, we tend to take for granted the very things that deserve our gratitude. In times of uncertainty, though, we often realize that the people and circumstances we’ve come to take for granted are actually of immense value to our lives.
Robert Emmons, Ph.D., writes: “In the face of demoralization, gratitude has the power to energize. In the face of brokenness, gratitude has the power to heal. In the face of despair, gratitude has the power to bring hope. In other words, gratitude can help us cope with hard times.”
In good times, and in tough times, gratitude turns out to be one of the most powerful choices you can make.
Putting Gratitude To Work For You
If you want to put all this into practice, here are some simple things you can do to build positive momentum:
1) Say Grace: This Thanksgiving, or anytime you sit down to a meal with loved ones, take a moment to go around and invite everyone to say one thing they are grateful for. Even if you eat a meal alone, you can take a moment to give thanks.
2) Keep A Daily Gratitude Journal: This really does work. And yes, there’s an app for that.
3) Share The Love: Make it a practice to tell a spouse, partner or friend something you appreciate about them every day.
4) Remember Mortality: You never know how long you, or anyone you love, will be alive. How would you treat your loved ones if you kept in mind that this could be the last time you’d ever see them?