I don’t know about you, but Thanksgiving is definitely my favorite holiday. The food, the quality time with family, the restful break from work, the food… LOVE it!
But I always get a funny feeling during the Thanksgiving feast when the time comes for everyone to say what they’re most grateful for. Not disenchantment exactly, but I have to admit I find it a bit unfortunate that, collectively, we have selected only *1* day out of 365 to intentionally reflect and give thanks… Something about that ratio seems sliiiightly out of proportion, no?
I think it’s safe to say that, on the whole, we have more resources, more luxury, more innovation and more opportunity than any other cohort in the history of this nation. And yet, many of us only take the time to slow down and formally express gratitude once a year! Is it really any surprise that I’m constantly fielding complaints that today’s teens are spoiled, entitled and selfish??
And despite this obvious connection between our youth’s rampant entitlement and a serious lack of gratitude, there are still some resistors out there who think practicing gratitude is just self-help fluff or an off-shoot of the “think happy thoughts” paradigm. Some even argue that gratitude leads to negative consequences like complacency and mediocrity.
But, the reality is that the rapidly expanding body of research on the scientific benefits of expressing gratitude is pretty damn compelling. Allow me to share some of my favorite findings from recent studies:
- Through research by Emmons, happiness expert Sonja Lyubomirsky, and many other scientists, practicing gratitude has proven to be one of the most reliable methods for increasing happiness and life satisfaction; it also boosts feelings of optimism, joy, pleasure, enthusiasm, and other positive emotions.
- Barbara Fredrickson draws on her research on positive emotions to theorize that gratitude broadens a person’s capacity to express love and kindness, which helps that person build lasting friendships and other social bonds.
- Studies by Emmons and McCullough suggest gratitude strengthens the immune system, lowers blood pressure, reduces symptoms of illness, and makes us less bothered by aches and pains. It also encourages us to exercise more and take better care of our health.
- Gratitude strengthens relationships. Alberts and Tretheway found that it makes us feel closer and more committed to friends and romantic partners. When partners feel and express gratitude for each other, they each become more satisfied with their relationship. Gratitude may also encourage a more equitable division of labor between partners.
- Fred Luskin found that gratitude promotes forgiveness—even between ex-spouses after a divorce!
- Jeffrey Froh’s research indicates that gratitude is good for schools. Studies suggest it makes students feel better about their school; it also makes teachers feel more satisfied and accomplished, and less emotionally exhausted, possibly reducing teacher burnout.
- Glen Fox’s brain scan research found that grateful brains showed enhanced activity in two primary regions: the anterior cingulate cortex and the medial prefrontal cortex. These areas have been associated with skills like emotional processing, interpersonal bonding, moral judgment, and the ability to understand the mental states of others. In other words, gratitude isn’t merely about reward—and doesn’t just show up in the brain’s reward center. It involves morality, connecting with others, and taking their perspective.
- Gratitude has also been shown to improve sleep, reduce anxiety and depression, and improve resilience.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg! I think it’s about time we start practicing gratitude consistently, with intention. Here are links to some specific, science-based activities for cultivating an attitude of gratitude from Greater Good in Action:
- Three Good Things: A way to tune into the positive events in your life.
- Gratitude Letter: Write a letter expressing thanks, and deliver it in person.
- Mental Subtraction of Relationships: How to appreciate a loved one by imagining your life without them.
- Savoring Walk: How a stroll outside can help build lasting happiness.
- Keep a gratitude journal, recording three to five things for which you’re grateful every day or week. Because some evidence suggests that how we keep a gratitude journal—for instance, how often we write in it—can influence its impact. Check out these research-based tips for gratitude journaling.
- Savor the good in your life—don’t just gloss over the beauty and pleasures that come your way. Loyola University psychologist Fred Bryant has identified 10 ways to practice savoring.
Together, let’s commit to sustaining the Thanksgiving attitude of gratitude long after the holiday is over. What will you do– today, tomorrow and beyond– to keep the grateful spirit alive?