Thanksgiving tradition of gratitude is good for your health, research says

(Photo: vxla / Flickr / CC BY 2.0)

Gathering around the table to give thanks this Thanksgiving is something that can add years to your life, research shows.

“The grateful mind reaps massive advantages in life,” Dr. Robert Emmons, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis and the founder a research lab that studies the effects of grateful living. “Health and wholeness, wellness and fullness result from the systematic practice of a grateful living.”

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He said grateful living can have many positive effects on health and well-being.

“It literally breathes new life into us. It recharges and it rejuvenates,” Emmons said about gratitude, which he defines as “an affirmation of the goodness in one’s life and the recognition that the sources of this goodness lie at least partially outside the self.”

One research study that Emmons lead in 2003 also found that participants who took time weekly to reflect on things for which they were grateful reported fewer symptoms of physical illness and spent more time exercising.

A study published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology in 2015 found that people who took part in a diary exercise twice a week asking them to document people and things that helped them at work “reduced their stress and depressive symptoms significantly.”

Sara Algoe, an associate professor of social psychology at the University of North Carolina, studies the role gratitude plays in interpersonal relationships.

Her research has found that gratitude is good for relationships and has “follow-on effects” for physical health.

“Taking the moment to acknowledge the things that people do for us that we really value actually has downstream consequences for both people,” she said. “When couples express gratitude more frequently and descriptively to each other, they are happier in their relationship.”

Another study study published last year that followed people with Stage B asymptomatic heart failure found patients who did gratitude journaling showed “improved biomarkers related to heart failure morbidity.”

Thanksgiving and gratitude

Thanksgiving is a perfect opportunity to show gratitude, according to both Emmons and Algoe, because the two go hand-in-hand.

“The word ‘thanksgiving’ literally means, giving of thanks. Thanksgiving is an action word,” Emmons said. “Gratitude requires action.”

To receive the health benefits of gratitude this holiday season, Emmons recommends moving beyond the tradition of naming your blessings at the Thanksgiving table.

“I think that a reflection of how our lives have been made so much more comfortable by the sacrifices of those who have come before us down through the generations should be the focus of how Thanksgiving should be observed,” he said.

Emmons explained thanking those who paved the way for you is more “satisfying and sustaining.”

“This sort of transformational thinking can be revolutionary,” he said. “And this way of thinking can draw us out of our self-involved and self-contained worlds to a deeper awareness of those forces which make that very world possible in the first place.”

Thanksgiving is also an opportunity to “shore up the ties” of family and remind people what you love about them, according to Algoe.

“When you feel grateful, don’t forget to say it to people,” she said. “Expressions of gratitude are like candy and they keep people coming back for more. The data really shows that.”

Emmons cited celebrities like Goldie Hawn, Russell Wilson and Matthew McConaughey as people who have mastered one of the keys of gratitude: Making it about others, not about ourselves.