The origins of Thanksgiving are problematic, but the sentiment of gratefulness intrinsic to the holiday has huge benefits. Appreciating what you have instead of grasping for things you want is the key to better mental wellbeing, improved physical resilience and healthier relationships. Here’s why you should express gratitude more than just one day a year.
There’s a quote, often attributed to Buddha, which goes, “what you think you will become.” In other words, positive thoughts reap more positivity. Kristen Martinez, a psychotherapist based in Seattle, notes that practicing gratitude has substantial psychological benefits. “It can boost your mood and help you to focus more on the present moment by bringing your attention and awareness to things you are grateful for.”
Make a mental note of these things, and be specific about it. You’ll find there are elements in almost every part of life worthy of your gratitude, even the less than ideal bits, and focusing attention on those good segments makes the whole seem more palatable.
Marlo Kronberg, a psychology grad student, focuses on “thankfulness for what I have, thankfulness for what I give to myself and thankfulness for what others give me.” She magnifies the miraculous aspects of the things most of us take for granted. “Whenever I’m feeling disempowered I like to say to myself, ‘Well Marlo, out of all hundreds of millions of sperm you were the fastest swimmer.’ And it’s true. Each one of us is here despite astronomical odds. A mind-blowing number of forces coalesced at the perfect time to produce little old you. You’re a bonafide lottery winner. A defier of the odds. A superpowered Olympian. That’s definitely some stuff to be grateful for.”
At a Shuksan Healthcare Center in Washington, Tina Kies and her colleagues recently introduced a weekly gratitude journaling program for elderly residents. “There are varying levels of loneliness, helplessness and boredom with all of our residents, and elders in general,” she said. “The first week or two were spent reminding each other of the various things in life we could and should be grateful for, like family, health, friendships. It was a bit awkward at first for most of us, but as we’ve progressed the residents have chosen to expand their gratitude, now expressing thankfulness for the simple things in life.” According to Kies, the experiment has helped elderly residents create a more positive outlook on life and form closer social bonds with each other.
Humans may be evolutionarily programmed to anticipate and dwell on problems as a survival tool. This instinct would have protected our ancestors, but leaves us anxious and stressed out. “Gratitude exercises allow us to spot the positive facts in our environment and reset our perception of reality to be less skewed toward negative information,” positive psychology practitioner Sara Oliveri Olumba told Culture Trip.
Dr Joe Raphael, Director of Health & Research at Wellsource, calls gratitude “preventive and proactive.” He advises keeping a gratitude journal, like the residents at Shuksan Healthcare Center, to reduce stress and “help you turn your brain off or slow down racing thoughts before going to sleep. The result is you sleep better and stay asleep longer.”
His theory that grateful people are “more likely to take care of their health” is backed up by a study titled Counting Blessings Versus Burdens, in which three groups of participants were asked to make notes on their weeks. Group one focused on things they were grateful for, group two on irritations, and group three on anything that had affected them in the past seven days. After 10 weeks the gratitude group expressed a greater desire to exercise and better overall physical wellbeing than the other two groups, possibly because a sunnier disposition has positive knock-on effects for health in general.
A study by Florida State University showed that couples who take time to both feel and express gratitude for their partner have happier relationships and are more able to discuss concerns. Feeling assured of mutual love and appreciation provides a safe space to argue constructively.
Illinois based couple’s counselor Julienne Derichs advises her clients to stick to the 5:1 rule. “To keep a grateful positive balance, for every one negative interaction there must be five positive interactions,” she said. “Otherwise we focus more on the negative than the positive. Gratitude opens us up to what is, rather than what isn’t. To be satisfied with what we have rather than what we want. It allows us to be rooted in the moment where most of the time we are doing just fine.” And this applies to platonic and familial relationships as well as romantic ones.
Expressing gratitude where it’s due makes the receiver feel seen and appreciated, and they in turn appreciate you more. This positive feedback loop is a relationship reinforcer that cultivates deeper bonds and greater overall contentment.