5 Reasons To Practice Gratitude Beyond Thanksgiving

Growing up, part of our family’s Thanksgiving tradition was to go around the table and say one thing we were grateful for.

By Paula Gallagher3 min read
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Shutterstock/Natalia Bostan

Now, gratitude gets more conversation than just one day a year – and for good reason. Gratitude and its effects on physical health, mental health, relationships, and happiness are being studied and researched. 

“Gratitude is good medicine,” says Robert A. Emmons, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis and author of The Little Book of Gratitude. “Clinical trials indicate that the practice of gratitude can have dramatic and lasting effects in a person’s life. It can lower blood pressure and improve immune function. ... Grateful people engage in more exercise, have better dietary behaviors, are less likely to smoke and abuse alcohol and have higher rates of medication adherence.”

But what is gratitude exactly? Harvard Health has a great explanation: “Gratitude is a thankful appreciation for what an individual receives, whether tangible or intangible. With gratitude, people acknowledge the goodness in their lives. In the process, people usually recognize that the source of that goodness lies at least partially outside themselves. As a result, being grateful also helps people connect to something larger than themselves as individuals – whether to other people, nature, or a higher power.”

Gratitude is repeatedly associated with greater happiness, even though it also seems dependent on emotional maturity. Here are five reasons to make gratitude a bigger part of your life than just Thanksgiving.

Gratitude Can Reduce Depression

Gratitude can help counteract depression and anxiety. According to UCLA Health, taking a moment to stop and reflect on the good things in your life can trigger your parasympathetic nervous system, resulting in a calmer nervous system, lowered blood pressure and heart rate, and better breathing – all of which contribute to feeling more relaxed and safe. 

Gratitude also helps reduce depression specifically. One review of 70 studies found an association between higher levels of gratitude and lower levels of depression. A 2015 study with 300 college students seeking mental health counseling (primarily for depression and anxiety) showed that the group that wrote thank you letters reported significantly better mental health four weeks and 12 weeks after their writing exercise ended. The study concluded that practicing gratitude in conjunction with counseling produces greater benefits than counseling alone. 

Gratitude Can Improve Your Physical Health

UC Berkeley Greater Good Science Center’s online gratitude journal Thnx4 project found that “participants who kept an online gratitude journal for two weeks reported better physical health, including fewer headaches, less stomach pain, clearer skin, and reduced congestion.”

More grateful people reported fewer physical symptoms, exercised more, and had fewer doctor visits.

These results are consistent with a 2003 paper from gratitude researchers Dr. Robert A. Emmons of the University of California, Davis, and Dr. Michael E. McCullough of the University of Miami. In their study, groups of college students were asked to write a few sentences each week about different topics for 10 weeks. The group that was asked to write what they were grateful for “reported fewer physical symptoms (such as headaches, shortness of breath, sore muscles, and nausea),” exercised more, and had fewer doctor visits than the other groups.

Gratitude Can Improve Your Sleep

Instead of counting sheep at bedtime, count your blessings. Studies show that more grateful people have more positive thoughts at bedtime, which contributes to falling asleep faster and sleeping better. One particular study of 401 people (40% had clinically impaired sleep), found that “more grateful people reported falling asleep more quickly, sleeping longer, having better sleep quality, and staying awake more easily during the day.”

Gratitude Can Increase Your Happiness

Dr. Martin E.P. Seligman, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, found a noticeable increase in happiness scores connected to gratitude. His study, which tested the impact of various positive psychology interventions on 411 people, included one week where the participants had to write and hand deliver a thank you letter to someone whom they had never properly thanked for their kindness. This deed of gratitude “exhibited a huge increase in happiness scores.” Remarkably, gratitude had the greatest impact out of all the various positive psychology interventions tested – the benefits lasted for a whole month!

Gratitude Can Lead to More Satisfying Relationships

Saying thanks for taking out the trash might have more of an impact on the health and satisfaction of your marriage than you thought. Harvard Health cites a study that found that “individuals who took time to express gratitude for their partner not only felt more positive toward the other person, but also felt more comfortable expressing concerns about their relationship.”

Gratitude can help relationships thrive by promoting a cycle of generosity.

Other research shows that grateful couples are more satisfied in their relationships and feel closer. Research from UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center even found that feelings of gratitude – or the lack thereof – were indicative of which couples would break up or still be together nine months later. Why is that? Gratitude “can help relationships thrive by promoting a cycle of generosity. That is, one partner’s gratitude can prompt both partners to think and act in ways that convey gratitude to each other and promote commitment to their relationship.”

What You Can Be Grateful About

Gratitude sounds pretty powerful, doesn’t it? So, what can you feel or show gratitude about today? Here are a few questions to ask yourself to jumpstart your reflection:

  • What did your body do for you today?

  • Do you have full mobility, all five senses, general good health?

  • What beauty or joy did you experience today?

  • What connection with other people did you experience today?

  • Did you have your physical needs met today (food, water, clothing, shelter)?

  • Were you given anything today? Help, attention, a compliment, etc.

Ways To Express Gratitude

Notice that many of the studies mentioned above included expressing gratitude in some way, not just thinking about it (although that's still good too!). There are several simple ways to express gratitude:

  • Say “thank you” in the moment.

  • Send a thank you note.

  • Keep a gratitude journal.

  • Count your blessings.

  • Pray and give thanks to God.

  • Tell others about how grateful you are for what someone else has done for you.

Closing Thoughts

Embracing an attitude of gratitude is one simple way to enhance several aspects of your life!

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