Brain Babble

Unraveling neuroscience research and FAQs—without the jargon

Give Thanks This Thursday—and Always

For your health and happiness, practice gratitude 365 days a year

Sometimes our world can be pretty crappy.

There's violence and crazy people. Maybe your candidate didn't win the election. Perhaps you hate your job, and that—on top of life's other personal, familial, and financial burdens—is wearing you down. Maybe you got to your morning coffee after it went cold, and that set off a bad tone for the rest of your day.

If you're celebrating Thanksgiving this Thursday, don't forget the true meaning of the holiday between the stressful hubbub of cooking, shopping, planning, and appeasing Great Aunt Gertie: giving thanks.

As it turns out, expressing gratitude is more than just a nice idea—it's beneficial to your health and happiness.

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

Back in 2003, Robert A. Emmons (UC Davis) and Michael McCullough (Miami) were among the first to publish a study in examining the link between thankfulness and a person's well-being in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

The researchers divided 192 undergraduate participants into three groups. All participants kept a weekly journal—the difference was what they wrote about.

Those in the first group (the "gratitude" group) were instructed to list five things for which they were grateful that had occurred in the past week. Participants in the second ("hassle") group detailed daily stressors that had brought them down over the previous week. Those in the third group ("neutral") were simply told to list five circumstances that had affected them, whether good or bad.

After ten weeks of journaling, participants were assessed for whether they experienced any number of physical symptoms (headaches, pain, illness, acne, etc.), rated how they dealt with people helping them ("reaction to aid"), and ranked their overall life views and well-being.

Participants in the "gratitude" group expressed more positive feelings about their lives after ten weeks, and were found to be 25% happier than the "hassle" group. They even exercised an average of 1.5 hours more and were more willing to reach out and help others.

Feeling good, physically and emotionally, is ideal, of course. But as pro-social beings, we crave acceptance and attention from people for successful relationships. Can expressing gratitude make others feel good, too?

A study published back in May by Amie Gordon and colleagues in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology answers with a resounding "yes."

First, the researchers had 50 undergraduate participants—all of whom had been in their current relationship for over a year—fill out a questionnaire every night for a week about how much they appreciated their partner and, in turn, how appreciated they felt.

Nine months later, the 50 subjects were surveyed about their relationship. Those who felt appreciated were more likely to return the feeling, and (perhaps most telling) were less likely to have broken up after nine months. In fact, these individuals considered themselves more "committed" than when first examined.

In a separate study, Gordon and colleagues brought a variety of couples into the lab (ranging between 18 and 60 years of age, half of whom co-habitated). The authors examined their interactions, scoring how many times the participants touched their partner, made eye contact, and how engaged each were in conversation.

The more often a person expressed compassion toward the partner, the more appreciated the partner felt, and the happier they ranked their relationship.

Says lead author Amie Gordon, "What goes wrong in a lot of relationships is you start to take your partner for granted. You get used to having them in your life and forget why you chose to be with them."

Life can be tough, so much that sometimes the last thing you want to do is pull back the covers and get up in the morning. But if you can remember to be grateful for the things you have and the people in your life, you might reap physical, emotional, and social benefits—and pass them on to those you love, too.

But let's be fair—we'll wait until after trampling our way through the crowds at Target on Black Friday Eve for some sweet Xbox 360 Kinect deals until we show gratitude for what we've already got. *sigh*

Emmons RA, & McCullough ME (2003). Counting blessings versus burdens: an experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journal of personality and social psychology, 84 (2), 377-89 PMID: 12585811

Gordon AM, Impett EA, Kogan A, Oveis C, & Keltner D (2012). To have and to hold: gratitude promotes relationship maintenance in intimate bonds. Journal of personality and social psychology, 103 (2), 257-74 PMID: 22642482

Jordan Gaines Lewis is a science writer and Ph.D. candidate in neuroscience at Penn State College of Medicine.
more...

Subscribe to Brain Babble

Current Issue

Let It Go!

It can take a radical reboot to get past old hurts and injustices.