On Thursday, those of us in the United States will celebrate Thanksgiving. Many look at Thanksgiving as a day to sit around with family and friends, consume unreasonable amounts of food, and give into an excess-induced sleep coma while watching a football game. As much as I enjoy this tradition, I would like to remind others of the real purpose of the day. To give thanks. It is not necessary to believe in a higher power in order to feel grateful. Show your gratitude to your friends and/or family (including furry companions). Be grateful for farmers, turkeys, and ovens. Feel grateful for freedom and your existence!
In the United States, Thanksgiving had an interesting history, one that is both religious and secular. Rep. Elias Boudinot from New Jersey called for the creation of a nationally recognized day of Thanksgiving in 1789. The intent was to spend a day giving thanks to God for American freedoms and the establishment of a Constitution that guaranteed them. President George Washington established Thanksgiving, on November 26, as “a day of public thanksgiving and prayer.” Thanksgiving fell in and out of favor until 1863 when President Lincoln established Thanksgiving as a national holiday, observable annually on the 4th Thursday in November.
While some view Thanksgiving as a purely American holiday, many countries around the world, including our northern neighbor (Canada), have holidays and festivals focusing on gratitude, family, and/or a successful harvest. Thanksgiving, therefore, celebrates the very essence of what makes us human. Gratitude for what we have, even if it is little, and hope for the future. Imagine yourself in the earliest days of time, when a single accident or nature-based event often meant the difference between life and death.
All of this leads to a larger point, the importance of making thanks giving a daily event. Now, I am not going to give you some trite saying about developing an “attitude of gratitude.” Frankly, I dislike the condensation of important concepts into something one can commercialize and slap on a bumper sticker. Rather, I hope to provide you with something of substance.
Potential Health Benefits of Gratitude
• Improved Heart Health: Yesterday (November 23, 2015), NPR ran a story about research conducted by Paul Mills, a professor of family medicine and public health at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine. In a small study, Mills found that those expressing gratitude by journaling, reduced their systemic inflammation and improved their heart rhythm.
• Enhanced Sleep: Gratitude may also improve sleep quality and duration, even after controlling for personality traits (The Big Five & social desirability). (Wood, Joseph, Lloyd, & Atkins, 2009, p. 46)
• Better Mental Health: In The Psychology of Gratitude, the authors point to studies indicating that gratitude acts as a preventative against depression (Emmons & McCullough, 2004, p. 183) by improving overall feelings of well-being. In a large 2003 study, those who exhibited higher levels of gratitude (albeit in a religion-based context), showed a reduced risk of “depression, generalized anxiety disorder, phobias, bulimia and addictions including alcohol, nicotine and illegal drugs” (Kendler, Liu, McCullough, Larson, & Prescott, 2003, p. 496).
• Stronger and More Fulfilling Relationships: Expressing gratitude aids in productive communication. A “study of couples 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”
Some Ideas to Get You Started
• Focus on the Small Things: If you need help getting started, watch the following linked video Gratitude by Louie Schwartzberg
• Try Journaling: Take a minute to think of one positive thing in your life. Better yet, write it down. That way, whenever you have one of ‘those days’, you can remind yourself about all of the things you have to be thankful for.
• Volunteer: It is easy to forget how much we have and volunteering is a great reminder. Donate your time and talents to others. Whatever your interest, age, ability, or time constraints, there is something available for you! To get you started, look at the following link from idealist.org.
• Be Kind: Show your appreciation for others and yourself. If you need convincing, or even if you do not, look back on my previous entry on kindness.
What are you grateful for today? Feel free to comment below!
References and Additional Resources:
Emmons, R., & McCullough, M. (2004). The Psychology of Gratitude. New York: Oxford University Press.
Kendler, K., Liu, X. G., McCullough, M., Larson, D., & Prescott, C. (2003, March). Dimensions of religiosity and their relationship to lifetime psychiatric and substance use disorders. The American Journal of Psychiatry, 160(3), 496-503. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.1176/appi.ajp.160.3.496
Wood, A., Joseph, S., Lloyd, J., & Atkins, S. (2009). Gratitude influences sleep through the mechanism of pre-sleep cognitions. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 66, 43-48. doi:10.1016/j.jpsychores.2008.09.002
Thanksgiving History (courtesy of Plimoth Plantation)
Canadian Thanksgiving History (courtesy of The Canadian Encyclopedia)
Celebrations of Thanks in Countries Around the World (slideshow courtesy of Travel Channel)
The Basics of Gratitude and some recent posts from Psychology Today
Video: The Science of Happiness – An Experiment in Gratitude (courtesy of SoulPancake)