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The Benefits of Giving Thanks

As many of us sit down to impressive feasts today, we’re undoubtedly thankful for the food on the table and the company that surrounds us. Our thoughts might peruse the events of the year – the many happy days enjoyed, the hard times weathered. Whatever the content of the year’s storyline, we made it intact and bring an attitude of gratitude for the chance to reflect [1], celebrate and share. There’s something to the mindset of the day. For those hours we see the upside. We focus on feeling fortunate – even abundant [2].

More than a particular holiday’s theme, gratitude can be a potently rich and beneficial lens we bring to life. When we appreciate what we have, we’re likely aware of the larger good around us, of the good that can come to us. If we’re on the habit of noticing – and celebrating – the favorable in our days, we’re likely ready and willing to anticipate and accept more of it into our lives. It’s interesting to me how it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy – of the positive kind. Likewise, it’s intriguing to see how the research supports this general idea as well. The more grateful we are for what we have, the happier more well-adjusted and even healthier we are.

In a study (PDF [3]) that compared three groups, including one group that was asked to write about the “hassles” of their day, another group that was instructed to write down whatever they were grateful for that day, and finally a third group that journaled about neutral happenings in their day. Study conditions varied to measure outcomes when writings were weekly and daily. Those who wrote about their gratitude reported an overall higher sense of well-being across several measures than the other two groups.

It’s part of what researchers label “prosocial behavior,” those behaviors that support the implicit social contracts of human interaction and relationship building like displays of empathy, offering aid and support, etc. Other research has shown [4] that being on the receiving end of a person’s gratitude can boost subjects’ sense of self-worth and/or self-efficacy. It also appears to encourage participants to further help the person who offered the gratitude but also another, unrelated person in an unconscious “pay it forward” kind of connection. The connection explains why grateful people are simply easier and more pleasant to be around. Think of it from an evolutionary standpoint: who would Grok [5] have wanted in his tribe? Who would you want?

On a physical level, subjects who felt higher levels of gratitude exercised more and suffered less from illness in one study (PDF [6]). Being grateful can even help us rest more easily at night – literally. In one study [7], participants with higher levels of gratitude reported better quality sleep and longer sleep duration. The researchers noted the importance of “pre-sleep cognitions” and their potential impact on sleep experience. (Think of that before bed each night….)

Of course, we’re not limited to saying thanks a single day each year, but today is a good day to start. Gratitude can work like a muscle. The more we exercise it, the stronger it gets – and the bigger benefit we feel from it. If it sounds too self-serving to put it that way, look at it as we do self-care. The more we take care of ourselves, the better able we are to care for others. Likewise, our gratitude offers a positive energy to those around us. It enhances our satisfaction in our relationships [8] and encourages us to give back. We’re happier [9] in our lives, less aggressive [10] and resentful. Imagine how that contentment serves others (e.g. children, partners, coworkers, family and friends, community) in a myriad of ways.

Cultivating gratitude as a regular practice doesn’t have to be complicated. Doctors Randy and Lori Sansone in their analysis of the research on gratitude suggest [11] everything from journaling to thank you notes or letters to meditating on gratitude. There’s something to sharing your gratitude [9], however. There’s something to offering it to the person you’re grateful for, and it won’t be just him/her that benefits. (Check out some inspiration here [12]. A few of you might want tissues handy.)

Make gratitude a family affair and get the kids in on it. Ask them what the best part of their day was or keep a large jar with slips of paper next to it. Encourage everyone to write down what they’re grateful at least once a week. Not only will you be offering your kids a lesson in appreciation, you’ll be boosting their self-worth – and creating a meaningful way to celebrate Thanksgiving the following year when you can read these recorded gratitudes together.

What are you grateful for this year? What are you celebrating, and how has it changed you? Who or what has inspired you or sustained you lately? With my own gratitude to this amazing community and the enthusiasm, support and challenge it offers me, I wish everyone a Happy Thanksgiving. Be well.