We all search for a magic bullet that will grant you exceptional health and happiness. Our lives are a patchwork quilt of a dozen different components, all of which contribute to our overall wellness. Incorporating things like a healthy diet and moderate exercise into our lives has long been the gold standard for increasing wellness, but what if there's still a piece missing?
All the kale in the world can't compensate for the lack of gratitude and general positivity in your life. As we near Thanksgiving, let's take a look at the less-discussed aspect of giving thanks: the benefits it has to your health and wellbeing.
In-depth studies of the effects of gratitude are a relatively new development, although the general research of the concept is decades old.
One Harvard study found that people who made an effort to express gratitude found increased not only happiness but also better physical health. Participants were tasked with focusing on either the negative or positive aspects of their lives, and researchers saw markedly higher happiness scores in those who concentrated on the positive. Moreover, participants were encouraged to deliver letters of gratitude to people from their past, and the resulting happiness effects lasted, on average, more than a month1.
This data echoes the results from similar studies over the years. While proving a causal link between giving thanks and being happy is not possible right now, the evidence certainly seems to point in that direction. So what might be the reasoning behind this phenomenon?
Happiness is an inexact metric. Physical fitness, on the other hand, is not. There are lots of ways to measure improving or declining health, all of them reliable and tangible. So when we see strong correlations between gratitude and health, they're harder to dispute.
But why do we see better health in people who give thanks? Why is it that focusing on the positive in your life seems to be connected to better physical and mental health? It's not just a correlation, either. The Harvard study we mentioned previously saw an improvement in the physical health of participants who practiced gratitude.
Part of the key may be in peace of mind. Some studies have found a link between grateful attitudes and better rest. Improved quality of sleep might be because putting yourself in a positive mindset reduces stress and anxiety, which are two significant contributors to sleep problems2.
Positive thinking is one piece of the puzzle of overall wellness. Expressing gratitude, whether through interpersonal connections or introspection, seems to be part of a domino effect on your wellness. Making a conscious effort for grateful appreciation puts you in a positive state of mind, which reduces anxiety and helps combat stress.
Training your brain to be more grateful can also lessen the impact of losses, be they material or personal. When you've trained yourself to be thankful for what you have, you're less attached to material objects. The absence or loss of the flashy car or a McMansion doesn't have the same detrimental effects they might have otherwise. Gratitude is almost like a shield, protecting your mental health from a lot of the stressors of the present day.
Most studies on the effects of gratitude have focused exclusively on adult subjects. Studies on the relationship between gratitude and happiness in children and adolescents are less common, and their results are more inconsistent. While one study from the Journal of School Psychology found that school-aged children appeared to enjoy the same benefits of gratitude as adults, other studies have shown no correlation between gratitude and happiness in adolescents3.
The mixed results found in children versus the more consistent results found in adults may signal a link between beneficial gratitude and emotional maturity. Adults have fully formed brains and are better able to make these kinds of connections. That isn't to say that children can't or shouldn't be grateful, just that the personal benefits of gratitude seem to be most effective in adults. Establishing habits of showing appreciation for and returning kindness as an adolescent only makes it easier to practice gratitude later in life.
When we talk about the personal benefits of appreciation, it can be easy to feel a little bit guilty. From an early age, we hear that expressing gratitude should be a selfless act, done solely for the benefit of others. Don't let this negativity disrupt your day or your appreciation. The personal benefits to your health and happiness that come with gratitude don't negate the good it does for those around you.
Getting in touch with your grateful appreciation can have a net positive effect on your relationships with others. Multiple studies, including one from the Universities of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, UCSB, and UCLA, have shown that expressing gratitude can strengthen romantic relationships4. The same is true of all other relationships, familiar and platonic. Giving thanks is healthy for you, yes, but it is also healthful for the people around you.
So don't let the gratitude stop after the turkey dinner. Use this Thanksgiving as a springboard to launch your new mindset of gratitude, happiness, and health.
(1) Harvard HEALTHbeat (2019) Giving Thanks Can Make You Happier
(2) Wood A, Joseph S, Lloyd J, Atkins S (2008 Sept) Gratitude influences sleep through the mechanism of pre-sleep cognitions
(3) Froh J, Sefick W, Emmons R (2007 March) Counting blessings in early adolescents: An experimental study of gratitude and subjective well-being
(4) Algoe S, Gable S, Maisel N (2010) It’s the little things: Everyday gratitude as a booster shot for romantic relationships