Why Practicing Gratitude is Good For Your Health
A detailed look at the benefits of gratitude for psychological and physical well-being.
For as long as I can remember, my mom’s family has spent Thanksgiving together. For years we gathered — uncles, aunts, cousins — at my grandmother’s small ranch home in Southern Georgia — with some of us supplementing the traditional dinner with a late night trip to Waffle House.
Then in 2004, our family suffered two tremendous losses. First, my mother died in July — only 4 months after being diagnosed with late stage ovarian cancer. Then, my grandmother died in November, following a short illness likely brought on by the death of her only daughter.
That year we gathered at a funeral, not over turkey. And I wondered whether our tradition would continue, given the absence of the two women who had — like in most families — organized our family gatherings for decades.
But my uncle — now the oldest living child — rose to the occasion. He set up a schedule in which each family would alternate hosting, with my brother and I stepping in for our mom. We’ve now continued that plan for the last 18 years (with a one year interruption in 2020 due to covid).
Much will be written this week about the stress of Thanksgiving, from the difficulties of traffic jams and delayed flights to the challenges of cooking a turkey and pleasing picky eaters. But this week is a great time for us all to instead focus on what we’re grateful for in our lives — and empirical research reveals that doing so is good for our happiness and our health.
Researchers in one simple study randomly assigned people to one of three groups:
- People in one group were told to write down five things they were grateful for in their lives over the last week (their lists included such things as God, kindness from friends, and the Rolling Stones).
- People in another group were told to write down five daily hassles from the last week (their lists included such things as too many bills to pay, trouble finding parking, and a messy kitchen).
- People in a third group simply listed five events that had occurred in the last week (their lists included attending a music festival, learning CPR, and cleaning out a closet).
Before the study started, all participants had kept daily journals recording their moods, physical health, and general attitudes. The researchers could then compare how people in these different groups changed over time.
Can you predict the findings? People who focused on what they were grateful for felt 25 percent happier — they were more optimistic about the future and they felt better about their lives. People in this group also reporting exercising more and had fewer symptoms of illness.
Although this study was conducted with relatively young, healthy people, other research reveals very similar benefits for people struggling with serious challenges. People with neuromuscular disorders, which cause joint and muscle pain as well as muscle atrophy, who write about things they are grateful for in their daily lives show greater satisfaction and more optimism. Women with breast cancer who spend ten minutes a day writing about their gratitude toward someone in their life show better psychological well-being as well as better adaptation to cancer. These findings all tell us that focusing on what you are grateful for has real and substantial benefits, even among people struggling with serious, even life-threatening health conditions.
This year it’s my turn to host the annual family gathering, and I’m feeling very grateful that our tradition has continued. My family includes a diverse range of people: meat-eaters and vegetarians, Southerners and Northerners, Republicans and Democrats. We share allegiances to different sports teams and almost definitely voted differently in this year’s midterm elections.
But we’re family — and this year will add yet another set of Thanksgiving memories, from putting out a brush fire that nearly got dangerously out of control in my grandmother’s yard to canoeing on a river in Northern Florida to eating deep dish pizza in Chicago. And I’m grateful not only for another year of creating memories with aunts and uncles and cousins, but also for my wisdom in ordering the entire meal from Whole Foods.