Thanksgiving tradition of gratitude is good for your health, research says

Research shows that expressing gratitude can improve your well-being.

ByABC News
November 20, 2017, 8:30 AM

— -- Gathering around the table to give thanks this Thanksgiving is something that can add years to your life, research shows.

“The grateful mind reaps massive advantages in life,” Dr. Robert Emmons, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis and the founder a research lab that studies the effects of grateful living. “Health and wholeness, wellness and fullness result from the systematic practice of a grateful living.”

He said grateful living can have many positive effects on health and well-being.

"Expressions of gratitude are like candy. They keep people coming back for more."

“It literally breathes new life into us. It recharges and it rejuvenates,” Emmons said about gratitude, which he defines as “an affirmation of the goodness in one’s life and the recognition that the sources of this goodness lie at least partially outside the self.”

PHOTO: A family stacks their hands in celebration before a special dinner.
A family stacks their hands in celebration before a special dinner.

One research study that Emmons lead in 2003 also found that participants who took time weekly to reflect on things for which they were grateful reported fewer symptoms of physical illness and spent more time exercising.

A study published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology in 2015 found that people who took part in a diary exercise twice a week asking them to document people and things that helped them at work "reduced their stress and depressive symptoms significantly."

Sara Algoe, an associate professor of social psychology at the University of North Carolina, studies the role gratitude plays in interpersonal relationships.

Her research has found that gratitude is good for relationships and has "follow-on effects" for physical health.

"Taking the moment to acknowledge the things that people do for us that we really value actually has downstream consequences for both people," she said. "When couples express gratitude more frequently and descriptively to each other, they are happier in their relationship."

Another study study published last year that followed people with Stage B asymptomatic heart failure found patients who did gratitude journaling showed "improved biomarkers related to heart failure morbidity."

Thanksgiving and gratitude

Thanksgiving is a perfect opportunity to show gratitude, according to both Emmons and Algoe, because the two go hand-in-hand.

“The word ‘thanksgiving’ literally means, giving of thanks. Thanksgiving is an action word,” Emmons said. “Gratitude requires action.”

PHOTO: A family celebrates being together during a holiday dinner.
A family celebrates being together during a holiday dinner.

To receive the health benefits of gratitude this holiday season, Emmons recommends moving beyond the tradition of naming your blessings at the Thanksgiving table.

“I think that a reflection of how our lives have been made so much more comfortable by the sacrifices of those who have come before us down through the generations should be the focus of how Thanksgiving should be observed,” he said.

"It’s putting the 'you' in thank you that really matters."

Emmons explained thanking those who paved the way for you is more “satisfying and sustaining.”

“This sort of transformational thinking can be revolutionary,” he said. “And this way of thinking can draw us out of our self-involved and self-contained worlds to a deeper awareness of those forces which make that very world possible in the first place.”

Thanksgiving is also an opportunity to "shore up the ties" of family and remind people what you love about them, according to Algoe.

"When you feel grateful, don’t forget to say it to people," she said. "Expressions of gratitude are like candy and they keep people coming back for more. The data really shows that."

Emmons cited celebrities like Goldie Hawn, Russell Wilson and Matthew McConaughey as people who have mastered one of the keys of gratitude: Making it about others, not about ourselves.

"This is the single most important thing that I've learned about gratitude. It's not about us," Emmons said. "We turn gratitude into a self-focused personal project. The focus becomes how I am doing, instead of what others are doing for me."

PHOTO: A family gathers around the dinner table.
A family gathers around the dinner table.
Getty Images

Algoe's research has also found the "authenticity and sincerity of the gratitude expression" is of key importance.

"It’s putting the 'you' in thank you that really matters," Algoe said. "It's the little part where you’re really calling out the person for the thing they did."

How to keep gratitude going

When Thanksgiving Day is over, gratitude is often left "on the Thanksgiving table," according to Emmons.

PHOTO: Dr. Robert Emmons is seen in this undated photo from University of California, Davis Campus.
Dr. Robert Emmons is seen in this undated photo from University of California, Davis Campus.

In order to avoid this "wasted opportunity" and reap the health benefits of gratitude, Emmons shared these tips for making gratitude part of your every day life.

1. Make a list of what you typically take for granted. Then think about these “as granted” rather than “for granted.”

2. Consider what your life would be like without this person/event/circumstance. In other words, if this had never happened or came along. Subtract something good from your life. This is known as addition via subtraction.

3. Give something away. When we are givers, we reflect more clearly on what it is like to be a receiver. Also, we are grateful for the opportunity to give, knowing that giving brings happiness to self and others.

4. Identify non-grateful thoughts: For example, thinking you deserve better circumstances, that other people are better off; that life is boring, that I am entitled to this, that, or the other; That life is monotonous, tedious; That things have not turned out the way you wanted. Practice using the language of thankfulness: Gifts, givers, receivers, favor, fortune, fortunate, blessed, lucky.

5. Find someone behind the scenes at your workplace or neighborhood and thank them. Speak words of gratitude to them. Takes two minutes. You will both benefit.