Thanksgiving — celebrated each year on the fourth Thursday of November — is perhaps one of the most cherished of American holidays; it’s a time when family and friends gather over ample amounts of food and give thanks for the blessings in life, including each other. As explained by University of California psychology professor Robert Emmons, one of the leading scientific experts on gratitude and author of several books on the topic, gratitude involves two key components:1
- It’s “an affirmation of goodness;” when you feel gratitude, you affirm that you live in a benevolent world
- It’s a recognition that the source of this goodness comes from outside of yourself; that other people (or higher powers, if you prefer) have provided you with “gifts” that improve your life in some way
An Attitude of Gratitude Fosters Health and Happiness
The practice of openly sharing what we’re grateful for is by many accounts one of the healthiest aspects of our annual Thanksgiving festivity. According to psychologists, it’s a ritual that fosters both happiness and health. It’s unfortunate that most people reserve this gratitude ritual for Thanksgiving Day only. While giving thanks once a year is beneficial, doing it more often could be life changing.2 At least that’s what science suggests.
Studies have actually shown that the psychological state of gratitude has beneficial implications for every major organ system in your body.3 So, if you’re serious about your well-being you’d be wise to increase the frequency at which you feel and express gratitude. Adopting the ritual of saying grace at every meal, for example, is a great way to flex your gratitude muscle on a daily basis,4 and will also foster a deeper connection to your food.
When you reflect on all the things that went into its creation, from the sowing of the seed, to the harvest and the cooking, you’ll realize just how much work — by both nature and man — went into creating the meal before you that will now provide you with nourishment. Considering a breakdown anywhere along that chain would result in scarcity and hunger, there’s a lot to be thankful for in each plate of food.
The First Thanksgiving
Thanksgiving is celebrated in remembrance of the first recorded feast between the British pilgrims and Native Americans in Plymouth. The year was 1621, and the pilgrims had just reaped their first successful harvest in the New World. While the history of this first Thanksgiving celebration is sketchy, eyewitness accounts claim:5
- The feast was attended by at least 50 English pilgrims and 90 Wampanoag Indians, the latter of which walked for two days to attend. In addition to food, marksmanship games and running races were also enjoyed.
- The celebration lasted three days.
- Venison was the highlight of the meal, brought by the Wampanoag tribesmen. Other meal selections included fish and fowls (wild turkeys, ducks and geese).
At the time, the get-together was not called “Thanksgiving,” and it did not become an annual, national holiday until 1863, nearly a century and a half later. In fact, the feast in 1621 appears to have been a singular event. Unfortunately, the peace between pilgrims and the Wampanoag tribe was short-lived, and Thanksgiving is for many Native Americans a controversial holiday tainted by ancestral pain. According to Time:6
“Early European colonizers and Native Americans lived in peace through a symbiotic relationship for about 10 years until thousands of additional settlers arrived … Up to 25,000 Englishmen landed in the New World between 1630 and 1642, after a plague drastically cut the native population by what’s believed to be more than half … The arrival of new settlers prompted a fight for land and rising animosity. War exploded in 1675 …
Many Native Americans have long marked Thanksgiving as a day of somber remembrance. Jacqueline Keeler, a member of the Dineh Nation and the Yankton Dakota Sioux … observes Thanksgiving with her family but doesn’t think of it as a national holiday … ‘Thanksgiving tells a story that is convenient for Americans. [But] it’s a celebration of our survival. I recognize it as a chance for my family to come together as survivors, pretty much in defiance.'”
Be Sure to Keep the ‘Thanks’ in Thanksgiving
Depending on the kind of year you’ve had, you may or may not feel like you have a whole lot to feel thankful for. Whether or not you should express thanks if you feel you have nothing to be thankful for is addressed in a previous New York Times article. In it, Arthur C. Brooks writes:7
“It’s best to be emotionally authentic, right? Wrong. Building the best life does not require fealty to feelings in the name of authenticity, but rather rebelling against negative impulses and acting right even when we don’t feel like it. In a nutshell, acting grateful can actually make you grateful …
Evidence suggests that we can actively choose to practice gratitude — and that doing so raises our happiness … If you want a truly happy holiday, choose to keep the “thanks” in Thanksgiving, whether you feel like it or not.”
One way to flex your gratitude muscle when life events leave you uninspired is to identify and express gratitude for seemingly “useless” or insignificant things. It could be a certain smell in the air, the color of a flower, your child’s freckles or the curvature of a stone. Over time, you’ll find that doing this will really hone your ability to identify “good” things in your life. In fact, you may eventually find that “bliss” is closer than you imagined.
Health Benefits of Gratitude
|Stimulating your hypothalamus (an area of your brain involved in the regulation of stress) and your ventral tegmental area (part of your brain’s “reward circuitry,” an area that produces pleasurable feelings)11|
|Improving your sleep12 (especially if your mind has a tendency to go into overdrive with negative thoughts and worries at bedtime)|
|Raising the likelihood you’ll engage in healthy activities such as exercise|
|Raising your relationship satisfaction|
|Raising your work performance (in one study, managers who expressed gratitude saw a 50 percent increase in the employees’ performance)|
|Reducing your stress13|
|Enhancing your sense of general well-being14|
|Improving your heart health15, reducing the likelihood of sudden death in patients with congestive heart failure and coronary artery disease|
|Producing measurable effects on a number of systems in your body, including the neurotransmitters serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine (involved in mood regulation), inflammatory cytokines, reproductive hormones, the stress hormone cortisol, the social bonding hormone oxytoxin, blood pressure, cardiac and EEG rhythms, and blood sugar levels|
10 Practical Strategies to Build and Strengthen Gratitude
Like a muscle, your sense of gratitude can be built and strengthened with practice. Here are 10 gratitude practices you can experiment with:
Keep a daily gratitude journal
This can be done in a paper journal, or you can download a Gratitude Journal app from iTunes.16 In one study, people who kept a gratitude journal reported exercising more, and had fewer visits to the doctor compared to those who focused on sources of aggravation.17,18
Write thank you notes or a thank you letter19
Whether in response to a gift or kind act, or simply as a show of gratitude for someone being in your life, getting into the habit of writing thank you letters or notes can help you express gratitude in addition to simply feeling it inside.
This includes smiles and hugs, both of which can express a wide array of messages, from encouragement and excitement to empathy and support.
Be sincere, and choose your words wisely
While it’s easy to say words like “please” and “thank you” in passing, these courtesies can become potent acknowledgments of gratitude when combined with eye contact and sincerity. In other words, say it like you mean it.
Research20 also shows that using “other-praising” phrases are far more effective than “self-beneficial” phrases. For example, praising a partner saying, “thank you for going out of your way to do this,” is better than a compliment framed in terms of how you benefited, such as “it makes me happy when you do that.” The former resulted in the partner feeling happier and more loving toward the person giving the praise.
Focus on the benevolence of other people instead of being so self-centered
Avoid comparing yourself to people you perceive to have more advantages
Doing so will only erode your sense of security. As Emmons notes in his book, “The Little Book of Gratitude,”22“Wanting more is related to increased anxiety and unhappiness. A healthier comparison is to contemplate what life would be like without a pleasure that you now enjoy … Gratitude buffers you from emotions that drive anxiety. You cannot be grateful and envious, or grateful while harboring regrets.”
Prayer and/or mindfulness meditation
Expressing thanks during prayer or meditation is another way to cultivate gratitude. Practicing “mindfulness” means that you’re actively paying attention to the moment you’re in right now. A mantra is sometimes used to help maintain focus, but you can also focus on something that you’re grateful for, such as a pleasant smell, a cool breeze or a lovely memory.
Create a nightly gratitude ritual
This suggestion was given by Dr. Alison Chen in a Huffington Post article.23 “My colleague has a bedtime routine with her [3-year-old] and it includes recognizing what you are grateful for. When this part of the night comes, you can’t shut him up,” Chen writes.
“There are so many things that we take for granted and when you listen to the long list that a child can come up with you realize the possibilities for gratefulness are limitless! Take a couple of minutes each day to stop and reflect; taking regular pause is an excellent way to bring about more feelings of gratefulness in your life.”
One suggestion is to create a gratitude jar,24 into which the entire family can add notes of gratitude on a daily basis. Any jar or container will do. Simply write a quick note on a small slip of paper and put it into the jar. Some make an annual (or bi-annual or even monthly) event out of going through the whole jar, reading each slip out loud.
Spend money on activities instead of things
According to recent research,25 spending money on experiences not only generates more feelings of gratitude than material consumption, it also motivates greater generosity. As noted by co-author Amit Kumar, postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Chicago, “People feel fortunate, and because it’s a diffuse, untargeted type of gratitude, they’re motivated to give back to people in general.”26
Interestingly, generosity has also been linked to happiness, which may seem counterintuitive since giving to others means sacrificing some of your own physical or emotional resources. This experience has now been validated by science showing that generosity and happiness are actually wired together in your brain. 27
Tap forth gratitude
The Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT) is a helpful tool. EFT is a form of psychological acupressure based on the energy meridians used in acupuncture that can quickly restore inner balance and healing, and helps rid your mind of negative thoughts and emotions. In the video below, EFT practitioner Julie Schiffman demonstrates how to tap for gratitude.
Cultivate an Attitude of Gratitude Year-Round
Your future health and happiness depends largely on the thoughts you think today. It’s worth remembering that each moment of every day is an opportunity to feel and express gratitude. Doing so will, over time, help you feel happier, strengthen your relationships and support your health. By focusing on what’s good right now, in the present moment, you become more open to receive greater abundance in the future.