Gratitude Isn't Cancelled This Thanksgiving

Research shows feeling grateful boosts your well-being.

Posted Nov 23, 2020

Microgen/Adobe Stock
Source: Microgen/Adobe Stock

Like many events this year, Thanksgiving will be a starkly different holiday for most people. Rising cases of COVID-19 mean that many will forgo gathering with family and friends, instead staying home during what used to be America’s biggest travel holiday.

While big dinner parties may not be possible, there is one element of Thanksgiving that can stay despite the global pandemic: the notion of giving thanks.

Researchers long ago established that gratitude promotes well-being. While we may feel thankful for something specific, like a gift or a meal, a broader outlook of gratitude — the mindset of noticing and appreciating the positives in your life — is proven to protect people from psychological distress.

A 2010 systematic review found that “an attitude of gratitude” may reduce your risk of depression, anxiety, and substance abuse, and is proven to help people adjust to traumatic life events and their aftermaths.

A new review published this year found weaker evidence that having a grateful disposition can lead to a decrease in specific mental health disorders. But it did find strong evidence that a grateful outlook is tied to emotional and social well-being. In other words, gratitude may not cure clinical depression, but it can certainly help improve your mood and connections with others.

Even more interesting, both reviews found that gratitude interventions are effective at boosting your well-being. This means practices like writing down three things for which you are grateful, having a daily ritual of expressing gratitude to others, and even writing thank-you notes help to improve your emotional and social well-being, reduce negative emotion, and decrease worry.

“Intentionally looking for the places and moments in our lives where we can simply rest in the feeling of ease and satisfaction that comes from recognizing the gifts we have in our lives is immensely powerful,” said Janis Whitlock, a research scientist at the Brofenbrenner Center for Translational Research whose research focuses on understanding and addressing adolescent and young adult mental health challenges. “Whether they are small, like a momentary ray of sunshine on a gloomy day, or large, like the knowing that our loved ones are healthy and safe, the studies are clear — gratitude is both a protective factor and a healing agent.”

At the same time, we know that COVID-19 pandemic is having a negative effect on people’s mental health. Studies show the pandemic has led to increased feelings of stress, loneliness, anxiety, and depression.

This is where Thanksgiving comes in: A holiday that focuses on giving thanks may be the perfect opportunity to start your own gratitude practice. Make a plan to call a friend every day and tell them something you are grateful for. Start a gratitude journal. Or make a plan to write weekly thank-you notes. While gratitude certainly won’t erase more serious mental health problems, it can reduce feelings of sadness and loneliness that may come from forgoing your Thanksgiving traditions.