Giving thanks can bring a bounty of good health
By Maureen L. Daniels, MEd
The celebration of Thanksgiving is much more that an American ritual, a once-a-year gathering of our families around the dinner table. Thanksgiving is a powerful symbol of the healing effects of gratitude in our everyday lives. It shifts our focus from what we don’t have to what we do have. It takes us out of a material mindset and reminds us of what’s truly important.
Scientific studies have shown that an attitude of gratitude creates positive changes in our physical and mental health, increasing our serotonin production, decreasing depression, boosting our immune system and reducing stress. In one study, psychologists Robert Emmons of the University of California, Davis, and Michael McCullough of the University of Miami asked two sets of participants to write a few sentences each week in a simple journal. One group wrote about things they were grateful for during the previous week. The second wrote about daily irritations or things that displeased them. After 10 weeks, those who had cultivated a grateful outlook:
- Felt better about their lives as a whole
- Experienced greater levels of joy and happiness
- Felt optimistic about the future
- Got sick less often
- Exercised more regularly
- Had more energy, enthusiasm, determination and focus
- Slept better and awoke feeling refreshed
- Enjoyed closer family ties
- Were more likely to help others and offer emotional support
- Experienced fewer symptoms of stress
In other words, gratitude helps us focus on and attract what we really want in life. It helps build and heal our relationships. It reduces negativity and improves our outlook. It helps us learn what truly matters. So, how do we achieve that level of gratitude and avoid the pitfalls of negative thinking in the face of personal, physical and financial challenges?
It’s actually very easy, although it takes practice and discipline to train our brains. Experts have much to say about the power and practice of gratitude, and their collective recommendations can be followed through these three simple steps:
- Keep a daily short list or journal of three things for which you are grateful.
Each day for a period of three weeks, write down three things, big or small, that come to mind. Who or what inspired you today? What brought you happiness? What created comfort and peace in your life? It doesn’t have to be profound. It could be as simple as the warmth of your living room or the smell flowers in spring, or as meaningful as the love of your life’s partner. You don’t need a fancy journal; you can jot down these thoughts on a little pad of paper on your nightstand. As time goes on, re-read them, remember them, cherish them.
- Express your gratitude to others in writing.
Make a list of at least five people who have had a profound impact on your life. Choose one and write a thank you letter expressing gratitude for what that person has done for you or what that person means in your life. You can mail it, though hand delivery would add more impact. Studies have shown that recipients of such letters are deeply touched, often having no idea what effect he or she had had on the person sending it. Once you’ve written that one, go to the next person on your list and do the same.
- Take a gratitude walk.
This is something you could even start on Thanksgiving Day after your big meal. Set aside 20 minutes or so and walk in your neighborhood, through a park or somewhere in nature. Bring your list if it’s helpful. Reflect on the many things for which you are grateful, including the body that allows you to experience this journey and the mind that allows you to be thankful for this day, this moment and all that you have.
Maureen L. Daniels, MEd, is Director of Wellness at Work at Berkshire Health Systems.