Before the feast begins, everyone around the table shares something that makes them feel grateful. It’s a Thanksgiving tradition in many U.S. families, but you might be surprised to learn that the simple exercise can have dramatic benefits.
For those who can resist diving into the turkey and mashed potatoes for a few minutes to share their thanks first, evidence indicates that gratitude can boost health and well-being.
Benefits associated with gratitude include better sleep, more exercise, reduced symptoms of physical pain, lower levels of inflammation, lower blood pressure and a host of other things we associate with better health. The limits to gratitude’s health benefits are really in how much you pay attention to feeling and practicing gratitude.
You might get a warm glow from expressing gratitude once a year at Thanksgiving. To truly derive long-lasting benefits, though, experts say you should make it a part of your daily or weekly routine. Scientific evidence from gratitude research backs up a few typical approaches, including saying thanks to people who don’t expect it and writing down a few things each day that make you grateful. It’s very similar to working out, in that the more you practice, the better you get. The more you practice, the easier it is to feel grateful when you need it.
Research has found links between gratitude and brain structures also tied to social bonding, reward and stress relief. Other studies have revealed connections between the tendency to feel grateful and a chemical called oxytocin that promotes social ties.
Research on gratitude has also found associations with other health benefits, including general well-being, better sleep, more generosity and less depression. It makes sense that gratitude is beneficial from an evolutionary perspective. Gratitude is such a key function of our social lives and our evolution as a species. People who did not develop gratitude or grateful relationships with others, it’s very unlikely they would have survived in a social context.
There’s something wonderful about getting together with people and being thankful, so you may not be able to be with your family or loved ones, but it may be a time to be brave and ask other people to get together — it doesn’t have to be fancy — and talk about what you’re thankful for.
Gratitude can help people cope with stress and build stronger relationships
Taking a few moments to reflect on gratitude can broaden your perspective, helping you find meaning in small but enjoyable moments, like drinking a delicious cup of coffee or taking a hot shower. Finding those minor sources of joy can keep you from dwelling on what you don’t have, and instead help you think about what makes you happy.
Writing in a gratitude journal can build a reserve of positive feelings that you can draw on during rougher patches in life. And sharing thanks with people in your life who make you grateful can pay off with deeper connections.
People who are grateful get less triggered or angry, they have more positive feelings, and in some ways, that attracts other people. When you feel these positive emotions and relish good experiences with others, there’s a bonding in that, and it tends to build stronger relationships.
Whether spiritual or philosophical, gratitude has roots throughout human history
Gratitude is a common thread through many religions and philosophies. Cicero reportedly called it the “mother of all virtues.” Greek philosopher Epictetus said: “He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has.” And Charles Dickens shared a similar sentiment with his oft-quoted phrase, “Reflect upon your present blessings — of which every man has many — not on your past misfortunes, of which all men have some.”
Whether you embrace a spiritual, religious or secular approach to feeling grateful, practicing gratitude reflects a recognition that the positive things in life have a source beyond ourselves. To be grateful is to express a personal relationship with that source, whether understood as an anthropomorphic deity or as the cosmos, the universe or the greater world… That’s a profound thing.
Tips on practicing gratitude
So what are some proven techniques to becoming a more grateful person? Gratitude research has shown that some of the most effective approaches include maintaining a gratitude journal, writing personal thank-you notes and regularly expressing gratitude to others in person. Keep a gratitude jar as a family, have them write on a piece of paper what they are grateful for every day and place it in the jar. During dinner or leisure time, take a few of the notes out of the jar and enjoy reading one another’s thoughts.
As for the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday there’s no wrong way to practice gratitude. Going around the table to share thanks, writing positive messages to others or simply taking the time to connect with friends and family are all good ways to get started.