When you’re sitting at the holiday table this Thanksgiving trying to decide what you’re thankful for, don’t forget to add this item to the list: gratitude.
The ability to feel grateful and to express it is one of nature’s greatest gifts, research shows, but the emotion doesn’t come naturally to everyone. It can be cultivated, however, by focusing on the positives in your life rather than allowing your attention to be captured only by the negative. Here are five reasons it’s worth the effort:
Dr. David Sack is board certified in psychiatry, addiction psychiatry and addiction medicine. As CMO of Elements Behavioral Health, he oversees a nationwide network of treatment centers including drug and alcohol rehab programs at The Ranch in Tennessee and The Right Step in Texas.
Editor: Saad Shaheed
Gratitude is good for your mental and physical health.
When we make an effort to tap into feelings of gratitude, multiple studies confirm that it pays off in better mental well-being and physical health. A recent study of those with asymptomatic heart failure, for example, showed that simply writing about things they were grateful for led to improvement in heart rate and in biomarkers related to their illness. And those with higher gratitude scores on psychological tests had better mood, slept better and felt better able to deal with their problems.In a study of organ transplant recipients, gratitude journaling also showed a protective effect, helping the subjects retain their vitality and prompting a rise in mental health and well-being scores. A control group that did not court gratitude, by contrast, saw its numbers and vitality decline.A grateful nature has even been shown to make police officers less vulnerable to post-traumatic stress disorder.
It’s proof that gratitude acts as a buffer, helping to minimize the impact of circumstances that might otherwise have the power to damage mental health and, by extension, physical health.
Gratitude helps keep your kids on track.
Want your kids to be happier, more well-rounded, and less likely to have behavioral problems at school or to use drugs or alcohol? Teach them to embrace an attitude of gratitude.A 2012 studythat looked at a group of 700 students at age 10 and then again at age 14 found that those with the most gratitude at the end of the research had more sense of meaning in their lives, felt more satisfied with those around them and with themselves, were more happy and hopeful, and experienced fewer depressive symptoms.Even those who had little gratitude at the beginning of the study but were able to develop it over time experienced the benefits. They also showed lower delinquency, including less cheating on tests, skipping school, and alcohol and drug use.
In announcing the study results, lead author Giacomo Bono, PhD, psychology professor at California State University, noted: “These findings suggest that gratitude may be strongly linked with life skills such as cooperation, purpose, creativity and persistence and, as such, gratitude is a vital resource that parents, teachers and others who work with young people should help youth build up as they grow up.”
Gratitude improves relationships.
What’s the most consistent predictor of a good marriage? A spouse’s expressions of gratitude.That’s the conclusion of a recent University of Georgia study, which determined that believing that your spouse is grateful for you — that they appreciate and value you and acknowledge your contributions — directly influences how you feel about the marriage, how committed you are to it and whether you feel it will last.Expressing gratitude, then, becomes a practical way to strengthen the marriage, especially if you don’t always have the greatest communication skills.
“It goes to show the power of ‘thank you,'” said Allen Barton, the study’s lead author, upon release of the research. “Even if a couple is experiencing distress and difficulty in other areas, gratitude in the relationship can help promote positive marital outcomes.”
And those “thank yous” aren’t just a positive in marriage. Research shows expressing gratitudealso makes people more likely to seek a social relationship with you. In other words, gratitude is a great way to make friends.
Gratitude boosts your self-control.
It’s human nature: offer a reward now and a reward later and we’re likely to pick the immediate gratification, even if that means missing out on something better another day. It’s a mindset that can lead us to make bad decisions about things like what food to eat, whether or not to have that drink or drug, if we should exercise, and how much to spend.Feelings of gratitude, however, can help reduce that costly impatience, according to a 2014 study from researchers at Northeastern University, the University of California, Riverside, and Harvard Kennedy School. In the study, participants were allowed to choose $54 now or $80 in 30 days. But before making the decision, they were randomly assigned to write about something from their past that made them grateful, happy or left them feeling neutral.Those recalling gratitude were much more likely to be willing to wait for a larger payoff, and the amount of patience shown was directly correlated to the degree of gratitude felt. Why this is so, the researchers theorized, is likely tied to the feeling of fulfillment that gratitude can bring.
The implications are profound, the researchers concluded, showing that simply connecting with gratitude can strengthen self-control and may have the power to lessen a whole range of societal ills.
Gratitude = happiness.
Research confirms that those who are focused on materialistic goals are less likely to be satisfied with their lives. Mix in some gratitude, however, a 2015 study shows, and satisfaction climbs. Money may not buy happiness, but “individuals who are able to appreciate what they have even while engaging in materialistic pursuits might be able to be maintain high levels of life satisfaction,” the researchers concluded.Interestingly, women have the advantage in cultivating gratitude, a 2009 study found, thanks to societal norms that can lead men to suppress their emotional range. It means men may have to work harder to access the feelings that lead to gratitude, but it’s a state worth working toward. Research makes clear that gratitude helps tamp down depression, social anxiety and envy, allows us to build more meaningful relationships, boosts reciprocal altruism, and elevates general well-being, among just a few of its effects. In short, gratitude may be our clearest path to happiness.