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Expressing gratitude is healthy for you

Posted: November 21, 2012 4:36 p.m.
Updated: November 23, 2012 5:00 a.m.

Yesterday, people all over the country gave thanks for the various people and opportunities they have in their lives. In a moment of humility and love, some people probably even recognized that they have all they could ever really need in the present moment.

Whether you are in line today to get a new TV or stock up on Christmas presents for your family today, or choosing not to participate in media-hyped consumerism, take a little time today to reflect on the gratitude you expressed yesterday, and then do it again.

I believe Thanksgiving is the beginning of all that holiday cheer people get between now and New Year’s Day. Why are people so happy during the fall and winter holidays?

In a 2003 study, “Counting blessings versus burdens: An experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life,” Dr. Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough found that people who count their blessings were more positive psychologically, physically and socially. That study funded by the John Templeton Foundation, became a comprehensive book, The Psychology of Gratitude in 2004. Emmons in particular has dedicated his career to the fascinating science of gratitude.

Emmons and McCollough assigned people to a “gratitude condition” or one of a few “controlled conditions.” People chosen for the gratitude condition were asked spend a few minutes each day or on a weekly basis, to list what they are grateful for, while participants in the control group spent a few minutes listing “other (non-gratitude related) life experiences.”

It was found that the people who kept gratitude journals on a weekly basis “exercised more regularly, reported fewer physical symptoms, felt better about their lives as a whole, and were more optimistic about the upcoming week compared to those who recorded hassles or neutral life events.”

Emmons and McCullough found that those who kept an attitude of gratitude over a period of two months were more likely to “have made progress” in attaining personal goals, as opposed to those in controlled groups. “Young adults” who kept daily gratitude notes had “higher reported levels of the positive states of alertness, enthusiasm, determination, attentiveness and energy compared to a focus on hassles or a downward social comparison.” Also, participants of all ages who kept daily journals were more likely to “emotionally support” someone else who was having a “personal problem,” as opposed to a control group.

The researchers also conducted a study with participants who had a neuromuscular disease for a 21-day study with similar results. Participants who were grouped in the gratitude group also experienced higher levels of positive mood, slept better and their spouses, who were asked to rate the participants in the study, observed more positive moods. In 2008, Emmons and two other colleagues found that children who “practice grateful thinking” have better attitudes toward school and their families.

Although Thanksgiving is the day that most people are likely to reflect on their blessings, luck, grace-filled life, whatever you happen to call it, it’s been scientifically proven that doing that a daily will elevate your mood, which obviously will impact your overall well-being.

There are lots of books and free internet videos and articles on the impact of being thankful. Some are scientific in nature, like many of Emmons’ books, but there is also a lot of book available that have a religious or spiritual bent; some are personal stories and others speak in general terms.

Being thankful and recognizing your blessing doesn’t mean you have to be complacently content. You can still aim for better, while giving thanks for everything that is going well in the present.

Though I haven’t read any of Emmons books, I’m a huge believer and testament that counting your blessings works. It’s really easy to fall into dissatisfaction, which can lead to short-term or long-term depression, and just as hard to pull yourself out of it if you don’t have an encouraging outlet. It’s generally good practice to keep a count of all the things -- big and small -- we have been blessed with, but when you are feeling deprived, for any reason at all, it’s especially helpful to be aware that you still have a lot going for you.

So, get a piece of paper and start writing all the things you are thankful for. I’ll start a list for you:

If you are reading this paper, that it in itself means that someone cared enough to make sure you knew how to read, you have sight to see, a mind that is capable of interpretation and you care about some aspect, if not every aspect, of the community you live in. If you bought this paper, you know how to earn a living and use your resources wisely….

Keep going.

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