I walked into the women’s locker room this morning at my gym and was greeted by a giant wreath. Christmas commercials have been on television for weeks. In Target, the Halloween merchandise was displayed next to tree ornaments in October.
Thanksgiving has become the in-between holiday we rush past to get to Christmas, and it’s unfortunate. We don’t take much time for reflection in our busy lives, and Thanksgiving gives us a rare opportunity to stop, consider all we have, and express our gratitude. It feels like we’ve become more than a little cynical as a society lately, and practicing gratitude offers both a defense against cynicism as well as a few more benefits we could all use:
It improves your health.
Dr. Paul J. Mills at the UC San Diego School of Medicine conducted a study, monitoring heart patients after asking them to keep a gratitude journal. It didn’t matter if they wrote a few sentences or pages. After two months, everyone who kept a journal was less depressed, slept better and had documented lower levels of inflammation than those who received the usual care but didn’t keep a journal.
Chinese researchers found that practicing gratitude lead to better sleep patterns, lower anxiety and depression in 224 patients dealing with chronic pain. Another group of doctors used gratitude practice to improve the results of therapy for patients being treated for a variety of psychological issues.
The National Institute of Health observed changes in brain activity and blood flow in response to gratitude, with higher brain activity in the hypothalamus – the region of the brain responsible for maintaining our sense of hunger, thirst, sleep and stress levels. Gratitude activated the regions of the brain associated with dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with our brain’s reward center. As gratitude increased dopamine levels, the dopamine reinforced the brain to keep finding things to be grateful for, igniting an upward cycle of gratitude, dopamine, and a positive sense of well-being.
All these physical and emotional benefits can be had through a simple practice of appreciation.
It opens the door to better relationships with others.
Have you ever been around someone who has something negative to say about everything, regardless of how great their life appears? Like Debbie Downer on Saturday Night Live, their negative outlook harms their relationships and drives people away.
Alternatively, when we’re around someone who is grateful for what they have and where they are in life regardless of their circumstances, we feel drawn to them. When someone is grateful for something you’ve done for them, it makes you feel appreciated and more willing to help again. Grateful people are happy people, and happy people attract others with their positive attitudes.
It’s an antidote for the ‘gimmies’.
Parents and grandparents sometimes bemoan the fact that kids today want more and more, and have no appreciation for all they already possess. A 2013 study in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin tracked materialism in 355,000 high school seniors from 1976 to 2007 and found that desire for lots of money has increased since the mid-70’s. Over 62% of kids surveyed between 2005 – 2007 believed it was important to have lots of nice things, while only 48% had the same view between 1976 – 1978.
Part of that difference may have to do with the behavior we’re modeling for our children. As a society, if we focus on all that we want and don’t have, and don’t take the time to recognize our good fortune and express appreciation for it, we can’t expect them to behave differently.
If we model gratitude in our own lives, and share our practice with our families, we may do more than just quiet the clamoring for more electronic gadgets and games. Several studies have shown there are important emotional benefits for kids who learn to practice gratitude at an early age.
A 2008 study of sixth and seventh graders published in the Journal of School Psychology found that kids who listed five things they were grateful for each day had higher GPAs, less depression and envy, and a more positive outlook than those not participating. The gratitude exercises were most impactful on those who had lower levels of gratitude in the beginning of the study.
This Thanksgiving, consider taking a few steps to add the practice of gratitude in your life:
- Take the time to write down what you’re thankful for, including details, and share it with the people you love. You may even consider keeping a gratitude journal over a longer period of time and see what impact it has on you.
- Write a note to someone you’ve been meaning to thank, but have never taken the time. Tell them why they made a difference in your life.
- Help your children practice gratitude by asking them to share one thing they’re grateful for each day.
As you practice gratitude, don’t forget the difficult times you’ve gone through, to help you keep things in perspective and appreciate all the good things in your life today. Practicing gratitude may even help you recognize the things that make you happiest, and most thankful, are the things money can’t buy.