Thanksgiving: How Gratitude Can Improve Your Mental Health
Dr. Kara's Health Insights

Thanksgiving: How Gratitude Can Improve Your Mental Health

by DK Kara MD on Nov 24, 2021

The Thanksgiving holiday is here, and if you’re anything like the next person you’re thinking about what all that includes: turkeys, football games, crazy traffic, and family members that drive you up the wall.

Wait a second…weren’t we just talking about Thanksgiving? Being thankful. It’s easy to let the very word slip through your radar around this time of year.

But it’s important. The holidays can be a time of great sadness for some, and health conditions like depression and anxiety are on the rise. Could it be that these increasing numbers could be lowered by practicing gratitude on a regular basis?

It’s an interesting idea, but one not far off base. Gratitude comes from the Latin word gratia, which means grace, graciousness, and gratefulness. While some gratitude comes from what we accomplish, many times it comes from things outside of our control. It’s a good way to stay humble and connected with everything around us (1).

More Than a Feeling

Scientists have studied the power of gratitude for years. It’s not being in denial about hard times, nor is it being unrealistic about life. Being thankful can truly shift your mindset, and improve your health.

Two psychologists conducted a study involving three groups of people. They had one group write a few sentences of things they were grateful for that week. Another group wrote about things that irritated them that week. The third group simply wrote about things that had an impact on them (neither negative nor positive). After 10 weeks, they noticed that the group that wrote down things they were thankful for were in much better spirits. They also seemed to exercise more and visit the doctor less (2).

Another interesting finding was done with people at risk for coronary heart disease (CHD). Between the years of 1992 and 1994, over 7,000 men and women who had never had a heart-related incident were evaluated. After 5 years, the same people were reassessed. Those who had a more positive psychological well-being were less at risk for heart disease than those who held a negative outlook (3).

Benefits

Making a habit out of practicing gratitude can not only brighten your day. It can improve your overall health in ways such as (4):

  • Heighten mental resilience
  • Increase self-esteem
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Improve coping skills
  • Create more effective managers in the workforce
  • Lower stress levels
  • Increase feelings of happiness
  • Broaden perspective
  • Lessen suicidal thoughts
  • Improve friendships/romantic relationships
  • Make you more generous
  • Improve quality of sleep
  • Reduce impatience
  • Cultivate better work environments

Expressions

People tend to express gratitude differently – and that’s ok. You can think about and apply it to several different aspects of life, such as:

  • Past: This can be the practice of remembering positive memories or experiences.
  • Present: This can look like being fully in the moment, as well as not taking any current blessings for granted.
  • Future: This can be as simple as trying to see the positive side of things, or maintaining a hopeful future.

It takes some intentionality, but with practice you’ll find that it gets easier to do.

Ways to Implement

The good news is that you don’t have to wait for something big to be grateful for. Sometimes the power comes from highlighting the small things, like shoes to wear or hot water to shower in. If you take a few minutes a day, you’ll soon find yourself seeing things very differently (5).

Some of the practical ways you can actively practice gratitude are:

  • Journal: This is more if you love to write. Including backstory, details and context can not only help bring about a different perspective, it can give you something to look back on later.
  • Come to Your Senses: One of the simplest ways to pause and be in the moment is to take note of what you see, smell, feel, taste, and hear. And if you choose to add gratitude to the experience, you’ll see what a gift even the smallest thing really is.
  • Notes: If the idea of keeping a gratitude journal seems intimidating, try the short version instead. Jot down a single sentence on a sticky note, and place it where you’ll see it often. This also works great in relationships – showing someone you’re thankful for them can really strengthen the bond you share.
  • Speak out: Verbal expressions of gratitude go a long way. Singing a song of gratitude, praying, and making generic statements can all work together to deepen your thankful roots.
  • Ask Yourself 3 Questions: This activity sheds light on the fact that you are not simply a receiver of what happens in your life. You are an active participant, and sometimes your own choices can cause unpleasant consequences.

Asking yourself, “What have I received from ____ (friend, family member, etc)?” “What have I given to ____?” and “What issues or challenges have I caused?” By doing so, you’re rewiring your brain to see things with a different perspective.  

  • Talk with a trusted friend or family member: Thinking back on a time someone did or said something to you that really made a positive difference - and actually telling them about it – is a powerful way to express gratitude and boost your mood. You may even boost the recipient’s mood as well.

Bringing It All Together

Thankfulness and gratitude are qualities that can have massively positive outcomes for your life. With mental illnesses and conditions on the rise, it’s clear that something’s got to change.

While it may not come naturally at first, carving out time to intentionally practice gratitude can not only elevate your feelings and make you happier, it can help you gain perspective and see things clearer. It can also help your physical body by lowering your risk for heart disease.

Everyone has different ways of expressing thankfulness. It might take some trial-and-error, but with some persistence you’ll find a method that works best for you.

What are some things you’re grateful for this holiday season? If it’s tough coming up with a few things, try some of these activities out. And if you know someone else who may benefit from this information, start the conversation with them today!

References & Disclaimers

(1) https://www.health.harvard.edu/healthbeat/giving-thanks-can-make-you-happier

(2) https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/pdfs/GratitudePDFs/6Emmons-BlessingsBurdens.pdf

(3) https://psycnet.apa.org/doiLanding?doi=10.1037%2Fa0023124

(4) https://positivepsychology.com/benefits-gratitude-research-questions/

(5) https://www.mindful.org/an-introduction-to-mindful-gratitude/

✝✝This noted statement is based on independent research and is not necessarily the opinion of the author