The Secret Power of Thanksgiving
How to improve your life by being thankful.
Every night before I went to bed, my mother used to ask me to list the three things that I was most thankful for that day. The first time she asked me to do this, “Oh,” I thought, “this will be easy!”
She said, “And remember, you can’t just say ‘comic books’ three times.”
“Oh,” I thought, “this will be hard.”
I quickly came to look forward to this time, when I could reflect on my day and the things I had enjoyed. But I was right: It was definitely hard at first. Human beings have an innate tendency to pay attention to the negative rather than the positive. Our survival instincts ensure that we focus on the possible dangers in our environment rather than the blessings.
In my childhood, I didn’t realize that gratitude is the key to overcome this inborn tendency—to develop a more positive mindset. As an adult—and a clinical psychologist—I know that attitudes of gratitude or thankfulness are linked to a variety of positive outcomes—increased happiness, improved relationships, elevated health, and enhanced performance levels. Here are some of the benefits of gratitude:
Happiness: Gratitude has been defined as a life orientation towards the positive. So it’s no surprise that gratitude is associated with increased happiness and lower rates of depression. One reason is that an attitude of thankfulness is incompatible with the “negative triad” that describes symptoms of depression—negative views about self, world, and future.
Not only does gratitude decrease depression levels, but it is also related to a lower risk for a variety of disorders, such as generalized anxiety disorder and various phobias as well as addictions to nicotine, alcohol, and drugs.
Improved relationships: People who express gratitude also tend to have characteristics or tendencies that promote relationships. Grateful people are more likely to take action to resolve conflicts and engage in helpful behavior. They are also more likely to have low levels of narcissism and a willingness to forgive. Unsurprisingly, a 2010 study found that gratitude predicted increased connection and satisfaction for couples in romantic relationships.
Elevated health: Stress and lack of sleep are detrimental to our health, but sometimes feel like unavoidable side effects of our busy lives. Yet, there may be something we can do—gratitude has been associated with decreased levels of stress as well as increased sleep duration and improved quality of sleep. Additionally, overall, sleep is associated with fewer physical problems.
Enhanced performance: A 2009 study found that those who practiced gratitude, in this case through keeping gratitude journals, were more likely to make progress towards their various goals—academic, health-related, or interpersonal. This group also reported higher levels of motivation, attentiveness, determination, and energy compared to those who were not keeping gratitude journals. Additionally, research found that grateful people are more likely to effectively handle challenges by actively planning and finding growth in situations rather than avoiding a problem.
Improved relationships, health, and performance, as well as happiness, are all associated with the simple act of gratitude. So how can we incorporate gratitude into lives? Every day, we can aim to take every opportunity to express gratitude to others. We can also try to take time to appreciate things in life, whether it’s an extravagant gift or a perfectly satisfying cup of coffee.
Here are two concrete ways to increase your own sense of gratitude:
1. The Three Blessings Exercise: Before you go to sleep each night, write down three good things that happened during the day—anything from achieving a goal to enjoying your breakfast. Then, reflect on why that happened—perhaps your family helped out so you could have more time to work, or maybe your roommate bought fresh fruit for your breakfast.
2. A Gratitude Visit: Compose a letter to someone to whom you are grateful, but who you may not have properly thanked. Describe your gratitude in detail, lingering on specific details and the impact, however small or large, that these people have had on your life. You don’t even need to send the letter or call the person in question to feel the positive effects of gratitude for yourself. But if you’re feeling brave, mailing them the letter—or even better, reading it out to them—would be a truly wonderful act of kindness. I’m sure that they would be grateful as well.
Gratitude can improve our own mental and physical well-being, but it also helps others, allowing others to feel appreciated. In honor of Thanksgiving, a holiday that prompts us to focus on what we are grateful for, I will continue my mother’s tradition for myself and my daughters. I hope you are inspired to do the same!
Jonathan Fader, Ph.D., is a psychologist and an assistant professor of family medicine at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine.