Evidence-based Thanksgiving: Is giving thanks good for you?

I have talked to a lot of people who identify Thanksgiving as their favorite holiday. As reasons for this they note that it has the benefits of family, friends, and food without the consumerist insanity that surrounds Christmas. The symbolic importance of Thanksgiving is indicated by the fact that it creates the busiest travel time, with 42.2 million people taking a trip of at least 50 miles.

 But how often do we do what the name of the holiday implies: That is, actually give thanks for things? The emotion that encompasses that act is gratitude, which the dictionary defines as “a feeling of thankfulness or appreciation.” Science can’t tell us whether Thanksgiving is good for you, but we at Evidence-Based Living wondered: What about giving thanks? Is there evidence that gratitude itself has benefits?

 It turns out that there is a significant scientific literature on gratitude. A comprehensive review of the research was recently conducted by Alex Wood, Jeffrey Froh, and Adam Geraghty that helps answer the question: Is gratitude good for you? They look at how gratitude promotes well-being and then move beyond that question, examining intervention programs that attempt to achieve positive outcomes by promoting gratitude.

 The authors note that although we may feel grateful for specific events, gratitude can also be seen as “part of a wider life orientation towards noticing and appreciating the positive in the world.” (I’ve heard the expression an “attitude of gratitude.”) Some people are more likely to notice and appreciate the positive in life than others are. And this orientation seems to protect people from psychological distress.

Wood and colleagues’ review shows that gratitude is negatively related to depression. In one study, an attitude of “thankfulness” reduced the risk of such disorders as major depression, generalized anxiety disorder, and drug abuse. Gratitude has also been found to help people adjust to traumatic life  events and their aftermath. On the positive side, a dozen studies have found a positive relationship between gratitude and feelings of well-being.

An important question is causality: It could be that less depressed people are more likely to be grateful,rather  than the opposite. To answer this question, scientists have developed intervention programs to promote feelings of gratitude and then looked at the effects in experiments. The authors review 12 studies that examined the effects of interventions such as daily listing of reasons to be grateful, grateful contemplation (thinking or writing more generally about gratitude), and behavioral expressions of gratitude (actually thanking another person).

The findings are very encouraging, with programs that promote gratefulness resulting in statistically significant increases in positive emotion, decreases in negative emotion, and reduced worry. A study of adolescents even found an increase in satisfaction with school after a gratitude intervention. More research of course needs to be done, but based on this review promoting gratitude seems to make sense to improve well-being.

An appealing part of the gratitude list idea is its simplicity. Anyone can do it – interventions are as straightforward as listing 3-5 things for which one is grateful before going to bed. Why not try it? Or get the turkey-sated crew around the Thanksgiving table to make a list before dozing off in front of the football game!


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