Being thankful can make you healthier, happier

Here’s a excerpt from two of my books, 10 Essentials of Highly Healthy People and God’s Design for the Highly Healthy Person. You can find my books here. 

There are many ways to become more highly healthy, but one easy way to begin at this time of the year is with the discipline of giving thanks. Last Thanksgiving, Barb and I sat around the table after a glorious dinner with a small group of family and friends. One of our friends, who was like a second daughter to us, asked us if we could practice a tradition that her family had enjoyed for generations. 

“We just go around in a circle,” she explained, “telling each other what we are thankful for. Each time you speak, you can only share one thing you’re thankful for. Then, we just keep going around for as long as it takes.”

More Information:

I smiled to myself. This probably won’t take very long. Boy, was I mistaken. Ellen began, “Today I am grateful for a new ‘family’ with which I can share this special holiday.” 

The next person in the circle continued, “Today I am grateful for a job that I love.” 

“Today I am grateful for pumpkin pie and ice cream,” said the next person.

“Today I am grateful for a warm home and a loving husband.”

To my amazement, this simple “exercise” continued over forty-five minutes, bringing much joy and laughter. Afterward, as we cleared the table, you could hear individuals whistling or humming to themselves. Attitudes were positive – indeed, jolly.

We could have complained or gossiped or discussed our ills and problems; we could have concentrated on the difficult times our country has experienced – all of which would have most certainly depressed our moods and our attitudes. 

But, Ellen chose to demonstrate the age-old principle that an attitude of gratitude virtually always generates positive attitudes and a sense of well-being.  

Writer G. K. Chesterton had the right idea when he said we need to get in the habit of “taking things with gratitude and not taking things for granted.” Gratitude puts everything in a fresh perspective; it enables us to see the many blessings all around us. 

And the more ways we find to give thanks, the more things we find to be grateful for.  Giving thanks takes practice, however. We get better at it over time. 

One good way to develop an attitude of gratitude – which will help increase your positive attitude overall – is to begin a gratitude list or a gratitude journal. 

This practice has been endorsed by Oprah Winfrey and popularized by Sara Breathnach’s bestseller Simple Abundance.  

In fact, this concept is so well accepted that a 1998 Gallup poll showed that more than 90 percent of Americans believed that expressing gratitude makes them happy. 

I gave one of my patients, who had a particularly bad attitude and the chronic depression that often goes with it, the “assignment” of keeping a daily gratitude journal for two weeks. 

On her next visit to me, she said, “I can’t believe how much better this makes me feel and function. Now, I still have bad moods and disappointments – but they seem to be getting better by the day. On days when I keep a list of all the little things that give me a lift, it’s amazing to me how the good feelings just grow. On days when I forget – well, my bad attitude gets the best of me! ” 

Behavioral psychologists have taken notice of the ageless principle that an attitude of gratitude will increase feelings of optimism and well-being. Psychology professors Michael McCullough, PhD, at Southern Methodist University, and Bob Emmons, PhD, at the University of California, Davis, have performed several gratitude studies. Specifically, they’ve examined whether or not the positive attitudes that come from giving thanks can ease the emotional burdens and stress of women with breast cancer and people with neuromuscular disorders. 

It should be no surprise that their early results are positive – so much so that McCullough hosted the first-ever conference on gratitude’s positive health effects. Called the “Kindling the Science of Gratitude” conference, it was held in October, 2000, in Dallas, Texas.  

In one of their studies of gratitude, these researchers asked one group of volunteers to keep a daily log of their five most irritating hassles or complaints that occurred on that day. A second group spent time each day listing five ways in which they thought they were better off than their peers. A third group wrote about five things they were grateful for that had occurred that day. All three groups of volunteers also kept a record of their moods and physical health each day. 

At the end of three weeks, the people who kept gratitude lists reported having greater energy, fewer health complaints, and more overall feelings of well-being than those who complained or gloated each day, according to results published in the Spring 2000 issue of the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology. 

Keeping a gratitude journal is something most people have to practice and work at. The researchers say, “It’s not a natural tendency for most people. But with time it can become automatic.” 

But, isn’t that true for all of the essentials of becoming highly healthy? They are not automatic. They take work and effort. It’s very much up to you to determine whether or not your health, and that of your loved ones, is worth the effort. 

McCollough and Emmons have continued to publish their findings about the impact of gratitude on helping people achieve high degrees of health. In four studies, they have examined the relationship between one’s health and one’s level of gratitude.  

In one study, they have shown that self-ratings and observer ratings of the grateful disposition are associated with positive affect and well-being (an improved emotional wheel), improved social behaviors and traits (an improved relational wheel), and improvements in measures of religiousness/spirituality (an improved spiritual wheel). 

A second study replicated these findings in a large non-student sample. A third study showed similar results to the first two and provided evidence that gratitude is negatively associated with envy and materialistic attitudes. Their most recently published study yielded evidence that these associations persist after controlling for extraversion and for those with a naturally positive affect.

Researchers believe that actively cultivating gratitude results in positive attitudes and well-being because of the principles of cognitive therapy – a form of psychotherapy that aims to help people replace negative explanations of events with more positive ones. 

When you find yourself brooding over a bad grade or an unpleasant experience, for instance, you can choose to purposefully find a reason to be grateful. By doing so, according to the researchers, you perform your own “spontaneous cognitive therapy.”

In an experiment published in the March 1998 journal Cognition and Emotion, University of Michigan psychology professor Barbara Fredrickson caused anxiety or fear in a group of subjects by showing them disturbing film clips. She then showed clips intended to cause amusement, contentment, or other positive emotions. To many her results were, but should not have been, surprising. The films that triggered positive feelings helped participants recover from negative emotions faster than did sad or disturbing films. 

Dr. Fredrickson concluded that positive emotions may actually neutralize harmful ones. “It may be easier,” she concluded, “for people to cultivate mirth, gratitude, and other positive states than to struggle to banish negative feelings like sadness and anger.”  

In 2000, Dr. Fredrickson’s research on what she calls “the undoing effect of positive emotions” earned her the largest monetary prize ever awarded in psychology – the John Templeton Positive Psychology Prize first-place award of $100,000. 

Due to the publicity generated by Oprah and others in the media, the public doesn’t appear to be waiting for scientists to explain why gratitude works – they are beginning gratitude lists en-masse. 

Why? A simple five-minute daily gratitude ritual makes believers out of many people. It’s like taking an emotional “aspirin” on downer days. 

I’ve seen a growing understanding among both professionals and lay people that it’s not life events that make a person happy or unhappy – it’s how a person copes with those events that makes the difference. Or, as my granddad used to say, “Walt, if you’re not content with what you have, you’ll never be content with what you want!” 

The more you cultivate a positive coping style, the more likely you are to demonstrate feelings of well-being and happiness, whatever your lot in life. 

An Rx for Becoming a Highly Healthy Person

When you begin to think or complain about a bad event or situation in your life, you can consciously turn the thought or self-talk around. Just tell yourself, “Now tell me something good.” 

Try this experiment: Start taking an “emotional aspirin” every day for a week. Here’s what you can do:

Keep a small journal at your bedside. Each night, before going to sleep, record five things for which you are grateful. Then, for a minute or two, reflect upon each item you recorded and thank God for the gifts you have been given. See what happens to your feelings over just a few days.

Here’s another experiment you can try: 

The next time something “bad” or irritating or disappointing happens to you – or the next time you find yourself brooding over an unpleasant experience – stop yourself. 

Immediately choose instead to find a reason to be grateful. Don’t be surprised if you find your attitude changing almost instantly!

 

2 thoughts on “Being thankful can make you healthier, happier

  • James Kedrow, PA-C

    Dr. Walt:

    I finally had the time to present a short introduction of your book ’10 Essentials of Highly Healthy People’ to my Adult Bible Fellowship (ABF) last Sunday. Passed out your self assessment tool for them to use. Hope to get a good response on people actually doing the self assessment. Thanks for putting the link to WHY on yuor web site. I hope to put a 6-8 week mini course for my church in Zion, IL together next year using the WHY materials. Hope you will at the AAPA conference next year.

    Jim Kedrow

  • Hello James,

    I hope the information was both helpful and well received. Let me know how the many course goes. And, I’ve been invited back to speak at the AAPA meeting in San Diego next spring. Hope to see you there.

    Dr. Walt

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