Thanks giving. A timeless practice with both religious and secular meaning, and one that arguably transcends race, culture, or creed. As we anticipate this national holiday of turkey-stuffing, pie-eating, parade-watching Thanksgiving, let us also reflect on the healing powers of gratitude.
It is common sense that expressions of gratitude would be beneficial to a person, but there are actual research studies to back this theory. And it seems no matter where you are in life (introverted or extroverted, in a relationship or not, chronically ill or well, young or experienced) there are benefits. So go ahead, be grateful, count your blessings – it’s good for you!
In a 2003 study, participants were asked to keep journals of a few sentences on a weekly basis for 10 weeks. Those who kept gratitude journals reported fewer physical symptoms, felt better about their lives as a whole, and were more optimistic about the upcoming week compared to those who recorded daily irritations or neutral life events. Surprisingly, the grateful group also exercised more regularly and had few visits to their healthcare provider. Too busy for a “journal”? Try keeping lists. Another study showed that people who kept gratitude lists were more likely to make progress toward important personal goals (either academic, interpersonal and health-based).
What would you say if there was something out there that increased your energy, determination, and alertness … and it’s free? Insert eye-roll here. But, no kidding, making gratitude a daily effort has been shown to result in higher levels of alertness, enthusiasm, determination, attentiveness and energy. And, yet another study showed that being grateful makes it more likely that you can help someone with a personal problem or offer emotional support to another.
Battling a chronic ailment or disease? A 21-day gratitude intervention study resulted in greater amounts of high energy positive moods, a greater sense of feeling connected to others, more optimistic ratings of one’s life, and better sleep duration and sleep quality. And, there are no wicked medicinal side effects.
Dr. Martin E. P. Seligman, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, asked people to write and personally deliver a letter of gratitude to someone who had never been properly thanked for his or her kindness. Participants immediately exhibited a huge increase in happiness scores. This impact turned out to be greater than that from any other intervention, with benefits lasting for a month.
Other studies have looked at how gratitude can improve relationships. For example, a study of couples found that individuals who took time to express gratitude for their partner not only felt more positive toward the other person but also felt more comfortable expressing concerns about their relationship. A no-brainer, but are you truly practicing this behavior? Perhaps this is a less costly alternative (or supplement) to counseling.
Managers who remember to say “thank you” to people who work for them may find that those employees feel motivated to work harder. Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania randomly divided university telephone fund-raisers into two groups. The first group made phone calls to solicit alumni donations as they always had. The second group received a pep talk from the director of annual giving, who said she was grateful for their efforts. During the following week, the university employees who heard the message of gratitude made 50% more fund-raising calls than those who did not. Perhaps these results from recognition of efforts and expression of gratitude can be extrapolated to our own lives through our daily interactions with our spouses, children, family, co-workers? Try it. What have you got to lose?
Michael Craig Miller, M.D., Senior Editor, Mental Health Publishing, Harvard Health Publications summarizes it quite nicely, “we feel and express gratitude in multiple ways. We can apply it to the past (retrieving positive memories and being thankful for elements of childhood or past blessings), the present (not taking good fortune for granted as it comes), and the future (maintaining a hopeful and optimistic attitude). Fortunately, it’s a quality that anyone can cultivate.”