The Benefits of Gratitude
By Medical Director Dr. Amy Eubanks
I love Thanksgiving! Not only is it my favorite meal of the year, I also love that it clearly cuts out a time for us to think about the things for which we are grateful in our lives. Maybe it is corny, but I always ask that we go around the table and acknowledge things we are grateful for before we dig into our plate on Thanksgiving. As much as my kids may groan initially, by the time we finish everyone is smiling. Everyone at the table just seems to feel even closer.
In the past two decades, a growing body of evidence in the field of social science has found that gratitude has measurable benefits for just about every area of our lives. Robert Emmons, Professor of Psychology at the University of California, Davis, and one of the world’s leading experts on the science of gratitude, defines gratitude as having two parts. The first is an affirmation of goodness: People can learn to wake up to the good around them and notice the gifts they have received. The second part of gratitude is recognizing that the source of this goodness rests outside of oneself—that we receive these gifts from other people, and sometimes from a higher power, fate, or the natural world. In other words, gratitude helps people realize that they wouldn’t be where they are without the help of others.
Multiple quality, peer-reviewed studies have shown that gratitude has a positive impact on mental health and well-being. One of my favorite gratitude practices that I use and encourage my patients to try is the “Three Good Things” activity. Each evening the patient writes down three good things that happened that day, and they take a moment to reflect on why it was good and what their role in it was. In the study of this activity, doing this activity for two weeks has the same impact on increasing happiness and reducing depression at six months as taking a serotonin based medicine for mild to moderate depression. Can you imagine what doing this every night would do if just two weeks has that level of impact?
If you further dig into gratitude literature, you will find solid evidence that gratitude has a positive impact on our overall health through reductions in blood pressure and increased parasympathetic nervous system activity – the “rest and digest” part of our nervous system. Research published in the last decade has shown that grateful people have fewer common health complaints, such as headaches, digestion issues, respiratory infections, runny noses, dizziness, and sleep problems. Gratitude also has a positive impact on our brain by helping cognitive restructuring through positive thinking. It raises serotonin and dopamine levels which help foster happiness, and it reduces fear and anxiety by regulating stress hormones.
Gratitude can also help strengthen our relationships. The find-remind-bind theory, first proposed by psychologist Sara Algoe—an associate professor at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill—suggests that gratitude can help people identify good candidates for a new relationship (find), appreciate existing relationships (remind), and motivate people to maintain or invest in these relationships (bind). Gratitude has also been shown to strengthen romantic relationships. Gratitude for thoughtful gestures strengthens how connected partners feel, and overall they feel more satisfied In their relationships.
While the science is strong, I am also reminded of 1 Thessalonians 5:18 which says: ”Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” I reflect on the gratitude I feel for the blessing of my family as we celebrate Thanksgiving, and I am reminded of how grateful I am for the gift of God’s son as we enter into the Christmas season.
Happy Thanksgiving everyone!