The Power of Gratitude

An extended family gathers together at the dinner table.

By Misty Bott

I love the Thanksgiving turkey and weird-but-delicious green bean casserole and pumpkin pie topped with whipped cream (no meringue, thank you very much) as much as anyone. If I’m honest, I might love it a little more than most – I am a BIG fan of whipped cream.

But the Thanksgiving holiday can be a great opportunity to focus on something that may bring us more lasting happiness than freshly baked rolls (if you can believe that’s possible). Giving thanks has been shown in multiple studies to have a very strong link to boosting happiness and even overall health.

The Science Behind the Emotion

One study conducted by two psychologists, Dr. Robert A. Emmons and Dr. Michael E. McCullough, split participants into three groups. One wrote down events they were grateful for each week, one wrote down irritations, and one simply noted events without focusing on whether they were positive or negative. After 10 weeks, the researchers found those who focused on positive events not only felt more optimistic about their lives but also exercised more and had fewer doctor visits overall.

These same results played out in a second study with two groups: one where participants were asked to write about their best possible future selves or to write letters of gratitude, while the second group was simply asked to write about events they’d experienced during the week. Measures of well-being increased for those in the first group.

Real-Life Benefits

What does increasing “measures of well-being” translate to in everyday life? It may have some pretty impressive payoffs for our social and mental health. According to a paper in the Journal of Research in Personality, “In the last few years, gratitude has been shown to be a robust predictor of well-being and social variables. On the basis of this relationship, gratitude interventions have been developed and shown to substantially decrease depression and increase social functioning...”

In addition to possible effects on our mental health, gratitude can impact our physical health. In a study on 186 heart failure patients, gratitude was associated with things that may not seem surprising: better sleep, less depressed mood, and less fatigue. However, those patients who expressed more gratitude also had lower levels of inflammation in their system.

And if that weren’t impressive enough, another study conducted by doctors Joshua Brown and Joel Wong and summarized in this paper, revealed that gratitude may even change, our brains. This study was conducted on adults seeking mental health counseling. One group wrote letters of gratitude, one wrote about negative experiences, and one didn’t do any writing.

Three months after the study ended, the researchers used an fMRI scanner to measure brain activity. It showed those who wrote thank you letters had greater activation in the medial prefrontal cortex than those who didn’t, which, according to the authors, “indicates that simply expressing gratitude may have lasting effects on the brain.” The researchers admit this finding isn’t conclusive. However, it could mean we can train our brains to be more grateful over time, and possibly reap even greater health benefits.

How to Be More Grateful

There are two things to keep in mind here: First, gratitude research is relatively new, and second, it’s not easy to prove a direct causal effect between gratitude and happiness. Still, with evidence growing that gratitude may increase overall life satisfaction, decrease depression, and have a positive effect on health and good habits, it’s hard to ignore the fact that there’s something to be said for choosing gratitude.

The good news is that increasing your gratitude is far less complicated than preparing a Thanksgiving dinner. Considering the work of Giacomo Bono, PhD, and Michael McCullough, PhD, an article published in the Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy, suggests a few simple things that can help to “enhance feelings of gratitude.”

  • Journaling about things for which you’re grateful
  • Thinking about someone for whom you’re grateful
  • Writing a letter to someone telling them you appreciate them
  • Meditating on gratitude
  • Writing down 3 things at the end of every week for which you’re grateful
  • Saying thank you – and meaning it
  • Writing thank you notes
  • Praying about your gratitude if you’re religious

This Thanksgiving, enjoy the food, the time with family, and the kickoff to the holiday season. And maybe – just before you give in to the tryptophan coma – write down 3 things you’re thankful for and see how choosing gratitude can positively impact your life.

This article is for informational purposes only. It is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice.

A light-skinned woman smiles as she writes in her journal.