Why science proves you should be giving thanks year-round
Thanksgiving is one of the greatest traditions in American culture. A time of year in which we gather around our families and friends and feast on an elaborate home cooked meal until we’re as stuffed as the turkey on the table. Kids are out of school, loved ones travel from afar, and the holiday season has truly kicked off. Perhaps you’re spending quality time in the kitchen with relatives, taking bets on who is going to win the big football game, or depending on where you live – watching the first snow of the season.
We come together to celebrate family traditions and make time for thanks and gratitude. We deliberately pause to consider our blessings. But why do we save our gratitude for this one particular day? What happens on the other 364 days of the year? For most people, they go back to their daily routines, obligations, and mindset; expressing gratitude only to favorable events or outcomes. But what if we chose to intentionally be grateful as part of our daily lives?
Could practicing this one little concept benefit us in the long run? Research has shown that people who consciously make an effort to routinely express gratitude are happier, and physically healthier. They sleep better, exercise more, and are at a reduced risk for various health conditions. All it takes is a bit of introspection to reap the array of benefits.
When most people hear the word gratitude, they associate it with saying “thank you” after an act of kindness or receiving a gift. Countless definitions have been coined over the years, but we will explore gratitude through the lens of positive psychology in how it has been studied.
Beyond the Merriam-Webster definition of “the state of being grateful”, some researchers have conceptualized the term around an emotional reaction to a gift or benefit, a personality trait, or a moral virtue. Psychiatry researchers, have provided a broader understanding of the term as, “Gratitude is the appreciation of what is valuable and meaningful to oneself and represents a general state of thankfulness and/or appreciation.” This definition transcends beyond the common association of feeling grateful as a result of being benefitted by someone. Instead, it encompasses a robust meaning to include gratitude as both an experience and emotional reaction to something (e.g., feeling thankful for an experience).
Researchers all over the world are studying the effects of gratitude, continuously amassing evidence that proves a wide range of benefits. Rather than focusing on giving thanks around the dinner table just on Thanksgiving, consider these reasons to practice an attitude of gratitude year-round.
Happiness as a Result of Gratitude
It likely does not come as a surprise that positive psychology research consistently shows a strong link between gratitude and happiness. In practicing gratitude, we are purposefully examining the goodness in our lives. We are actively acknowledging what has led to such appreciation and choosing not to focus on what is absent or lacking.
Leading gratitude researchers, Dr. Robert Emmons of the University of California at Davis and Dr. Michael McCullough of the University of Miami explored the benefits of keeping a gratitude journal. After several weeks, the participants had increased their well-being; they demonstrated more optimism, exercised more, and had fewer visits to the doctor. Moreover, they were happier.1
Dr. Martin Seligman, a psychologist of the University of Pennsylvania, had participants write and personally deliver a letter of gratitude to someone who had never been properly thanked for their kindness, resulting in an immediate increase in happiness scores. The exhibited impact from this study was greater than that from any other intervention, with benefits lasting for an extending period of time.
If you’re looking to increase your happiness, – consider simply keeping a gratitude journal or writing a thank you letter. More on that later in the article.
Being Grateful Improves Psychological Health
The benefits of practicing gratitude transcend far beyond happiness, also helping to balance emotions. In a study researching a gratitude intervention, keeping a gratitude journal for two weeks produced reductions in perceived stress (by 28 percent) and depression (by 16 percent). According to Dr. Emmons, gratitude blocks a host of toxic emotions, such as envy, resentment, regret and depression; therefore, increasing your mental well-being. In this day in age, we could all benefit from a mental pick-me-up. Who would have thought writing about what we are grateful for could be so beneficial?
It Also Improves Physical Health
The rewards of practicing gratitude don’t stop there- let’s talk about the impact on your physical health. Dr. Emmons has documented various data points across several studies demonstrating the countless benefits of practicing gratitude. It has been found that practicing gratitude led to a 7 percent reduction in biomarkers of inflammation in patients with congestive heart failure, has been linked to 23 percent lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol, leads to higher levels of good cholesterol (HDL), lower levels of bad cholesterol (LDL), as well as lower systolic and diastolic blood pressure, especially while encountering stress.6 Recent findings also suggest that grateful individuals are more likely to seek help for health concerns, experience better physical health, and have an inclination to wellness related behaviors such as healthy eating and exercise. Yes, you read that right – science proves that practicing gratitude supports our well-being. If you weren’t sure before, it definitely may be time to incorporate gratitude into your day.
Grateful People Sleep Better
Find yourself ruminating on the negative occurrences from the day before bed? If so, you likely are not sleeping well, or practicing gratitude. Following Emmons and McCullough’s study, researchers at the University of Manchester specifically examined how gratitude influences sleep. With over 400 adults (including 40% with sleep disorders), they further verified that those who harnessed the power of gratitude dozed off quicker, slept longer, and experienced less day time tiredness. Positive thoughts before bed have the ability to soothe the nervous system; all the more reason to count your blessings before bed. With a positive outlook and thoughts guiding your day, cultivating gratitude can help with a good night’s rest.
Ways to Cultivate Gratitude
“When you practice gratefulness, there is a sense of respect towards others.” –Dalai Lama
If gratitude is so metamorphic, why don’t we do it every day? The benefits of practicing gratitude are too good to reserve for one day per year. Begin a daily gratitude practice with some of these ideas:
Journal. Keep a gratitude journal of what you are grateful for each day. List a minimum of three people, situations, or experiences you are most grateful for. Be specific and elaborate why you are grateful for them. We saw the impact journaling had on well-being in the studies above; make it a habit to purposefully explore what you are grateful for and write it down.
Sharing is caring. Share with your family, friends, and colleagues over a meal or coffee what you are most grateful for every day and ask them what they are most grateful for that occurred in that day. Shared gratitude lends itself to greater connection and more meaningful conversation.
Say thank you. Do you notice that you feel better after acknowledging someone else’s good doing? Those two words are incredibly powerful. Consider writing a thank you letter to someone, and occasionally write one to yourself.
Immerse yourself in gratitude. Focus on your day to day by making small changes. Smile more, use positive language, and be in the present. Take the time to acknowledge the good in your life, focus on what you have rather than what is absent or lacking.
While it’s easy to get lost in the hectic holiday shuffle, take a few moments to acknowledge the good in your life. On this Thanksgiving Day, begin your journey investing into an attitude of gratitude that lasts all year round; you may be surprised of the benefits you will reap.