Thanksgiving is the time of year that most of us busy Americans get to push the Pause button on our lives and relax with friends or family. It’s supposed to be the time we reflect on how fortunate we are for the people around us, the food inside of us, and the “stuff” in front of us, every day. We set aside one November day to be… well, thankful.
For some of us, this comes too infrequently. Once a year is not enough.
When we don’t practice giving thanks on a regular basis, we can get stuck. In fact, we can become anxious, lonely and depressed. Our happiness declines. Pardon my bluntness, but we can become emotionally constipated.
This is never a good thing. Expressions of gratitude are meant to flow out of us on a regular basis. When they do, we are happy and healthy.
The Tangible Results of Gratitude
My guess is—you’ve heard about some of the studies that measure the positive impact an “attitude of gratitude” has on human beings. In 2003, Robert Emmons (from UC Davis) and Michael McCullough (from the University of Miami) partnered to research the affects of gratitude in people. In a summary of their findings, the results were tangible:
- In an experimental comparison, those who kept gratitude journals on a weekly basis exercised more regularly, reported fewer physical symptoms, felt better about their lives as a whole, and were more optimistic about the coming week compared to those who recorded hassles or neutral life events.
- A related benefit was observed in the realm of personal goal attainment: Participants who kept gratitude lists were more likely to have made progress toward important personal goals (academic, interpersonal and health-based) over a two-month period, compared to subjects in other experimental conditions. In short, grateful people tend to hit their desired targets or goals.
- A daily gratitude intervention (self-guided exercises) with young adults resulted in higher reported levels of alertness, enthusiasm, determination, attentiveness and energy, compared to a focus on hassles or a downward social comparison. In short, gratitude helps attitude.
- Participants in the daily gratitude condition were more likely to report having helped someone with a personal problem or having offered emotional support to another, relative to the hassles or social comparison condition.
- In a sample of adults with neuromuscular disease, a 21-day gratitude intervention 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, relative to a control group.
It Goes Both Ways
Just like our bodies are meant to both consume and eliminate, so our souls (our mind, will and emotions) are as well. We take in, and we express. When we consume but don’t express, we get constipated. It’s hard to be happy when you’re constipated.
When we are thankful, lots of good outcomes occur. In fact, Emmon’s and McCullough’s research found four distinct areas in which gratitude had a measurable impact:
- Well-Being: Grateful people report higher levels of positive emotions, life satisfaction, vitality, optimism, and lower levels of depression and stress. The disposition toward gratitude appears to enhance pleasant feeling states more than it diminishes unpleasant emotions.
- Pro-sociality: People with a strong disposition toward gratitude have the capacity to be empathetic and to take the perspective of others. They are rated as more generous and more helpful by people in their social networks.
- Spirituality: Those who regularly attend religious services and engage in religious activities such as prayer reading religious material score are more likely to be grateful. Grateful people are more likely to acknowledge a belief in the interconnectedness of all life and a commitment to and responsibility to others.
- Materialism: Grateful individuals place less importance on material goods; they’re less likely to judge their or others success in terms of possessions accumulated; they are less envious of others; and are more likely to share their possessions with others relative to less grateful persons.
Our Action Step…
May I remind you? This is a choice. It is an alternative lifestyle. It’s a way of fighting an entitled spirit or an angst-filled life. But we must choose it. It is not happy people who are thankful; it is thankful people who are happy.
So this Thanksgiving, as you’re woofing down the turkey, the dressing, the mashed potatoes and the pie, remember that every time you consume something, you should equally express something in order to stay healthy. Your body needs it. Your soul needs it. You are healthiest when you’re grateful… not annually, but daily. William Arthur Ward once said, “Feeling gratitude and not expressing it is like wrapping a present and not giving it.”