Health Made Easier: The Benefits of Gratitude

The concept of creating a special day on which to give “thanksgiving” in the United States dates to 1621 in Plymouth Rock.  Most kindergarten children can explain to you in colorful detail that the Pilgrims, newly arrived in this land, gave thanks at that time for a good harvest. In 1863, during the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving a national holiday, hoping to foster a feeling of unity between the South and the North. Since, however, the Southerners did not accept Lincoln as their president, the date of Thanksgiving was not officially set until after the war, in 1870. In 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt changed the date from the last Thursday of November to the fourth Thursday of November, on which it is observed to this day.

According to current statistics, Thanksgiving is the most celebrated holiday in the United States. The average American will get together with both immediate and extended family members and eat huge quantities of food, which often includes a large stuffed turkey with gravy, cranberry relish, sweet potatoes, and pumpkin pie for dessert. Either before, during, or immediately after the meal, there is a tradition to watch at least one football game on television. Indeed, the primary theme of giving thanks is sometimes lost in all the food preparation, the food consumption, and the football. With the sumptuous meals usually presented, Thanksgiving is not a holiday known for promoting healthy living. If, however, we would spend some time thinking about what we have that we should truly be grateful for, we could potentially reap some health benefits, and still enjoy our turkey with stuffing.

The notion of hakarat ha-tov, appreciating and acknowledging the good things that one has received in life, is also, of course, a very basic Jewish value, and its expression is not limited to just once a year. But perhaps to the surprise of some, several research studies have shown various health benefits which result from being grateful as well. In one study, for example, researchers divided the group of participants into three groups, in which all the research participants were asked to keep a journal. One group was asked to write about what they were grateful for that had occurred during that week. The next group would write about what had displeased them during the week, and the third would write about whatever events took place, both positive and negative. After ten weeks, it was demonstrated that those who had written about the events in their lives which they were thankful for were more optimistic, felt physically better, and were happier overall than those in the other two groups.  In addition, the members of this group exercised more and had fewer doctor visits than those in the groups that focused primarily, or even partially, on what aggravated and upset them.

Another study researched the benefits of displaying gratitude on relationships. The results of this study concluded that those couples who verbally expressed appreciation and gratitude – even a simple thank you at the right time – not only improved their relationship and created a positive energy toward each other, but also could express honest concerns about problems in their relationship.

In a study documented in a publication called Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being, researchers found that people who spent fifteen minutes writing down what they are grateful for in a journal before bedtime fell asleep faster and stayed asleep longer.

Other studies have linked gratefulness and optimism to both a healthier heart and an improved immune system.

Developing a feeling of gratitude takes time and work. Some people are more naturally grateful and appreciative; their glass is not only half full, it “runneth over.” On the opposite side of the grateful spectrum are people who don’t just look at the glass as half empty; they don’t feel that they have a glass at all! Take an honest look at yourself. Where on the spectrum are you? We all have the capacity to be grateful, and to show it; some of us just need to work on it harder than others. It may take time to change the way you look at the world, but with practice it can be done. I am fortunate to spend some time every week walking/jogging in Teaneck’s Votee Park with my clients. At some point during a workout, I will comment on the beautiful leaves, the color of the sky, the sun in our faces, the strength of our bodies, or how fortunate we all are to be living in a free country (even those who were unhappy with the recent election outcomes). Be thankful for your job, your health, the people in your life, your family and your friends. Don’t spend time obsessing over the negative events or the obstacles in your life. All this is, of course, easier said than done, but with practice and conscientious effort, one can change the way he or she looks at life and at the world.

This Thanksgiving – and beyond – spend some time thinking about what is working in your life and say thank you. Your body, mind, and soul will all benefit.

Happy Turkey Day! And if you’re a client of mine – skip the stuffing!

By Beth S. Taubes, RN, OCN, CBCN, Certified Health Coach