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Jay Evensen: Being grateful is as good as skipping dessert and working out

Published: Wednesday, Nov. 27 2013 12:00 a.m. MST

Researchers are linking gratitude to better physical and mental health and to reduced levels of stress and anxiety.

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I can’t remember what labyrinth of clicks and links led me there, but after a few moments of chasing what promised to be an interesting sports story on the Internet last week I found myself knee-deep in the verbal quicksand of a comment section.

The Deseret News monitors its reader comments. The source that published this story does not, and readers seemed to be channeling some raging inner inferno that bypassed their brains on the way to a keyboard.

By the time the comment thread exhausted itself, one side, represented by someone identified only through initials, expressed the opinion that the other posters were “racist bigots” who watched “kiddie porn and animal abuse videos.”

If you want to know how society has changed, just measure your level of shock at comments like these. Chances are you have experienced something similar in one way or another, and you have surely seen some measure of it in the world around you, either in politics or entertainment or driving on the freeway. Then imagine how such behavior would have been accepted a generation ago.

All of which is to argue that Thanksgiving is the most important day of the year — not just for our nation’s collective health, but for our personal health, as well. If you want a reason to be upset at the encroachment of the consumption fest known as “black Friday” on this sacred day, there is no shortage of empirical, scientific data to back you up.

But then, if you’re the truly grateful sort, you won’t be upset in any raging sort of way.

It turns out that sitting around a table on Thanksgiving Day, or any other day, and verbally expressing gratitude for something or someone is better for you than foregoing dessert to work out in a gym. Researchers are linking gratitude to better physical and mental health and to reduced levels of stress and anxiety.

They also are connecting it to lower levels of aggression. Here is just one example:

Recently, at the University of Kentucky, researchers gave 158 undergraduate students the assignment to write an essay about a time when they were angry. Then they told them to write a letter to someone with whom they had a close relationship. Half the people were told to write about five things for which they were the most grateful, while the other half were told to merely write about five things they like to do.

Then the initial papers were graded. Randomly, some of the participants found insulting comments written on their work, such as, “This is one of the worst essays I’ve ever read.” Others were given positive comments.

Then the students each played a game against the person who had evaluated their work, with the winner being given the privilege of blasting his or her opponent with startling “white noise.” They could set the decibel level and the duration.

Not surprisingly, those who had been insulted blasted the longest and loudest — except for those who also had written about gratitude. They were the least aggressive of all, not withstanding the comments on their papers.

The study concluded that a “grateful person is one who has days filled with low levels of aggression and hurt feelings, is loathe to behave aggressively toward close others or insulting strangers, and whose overall beneficence in the face of aggressive situations is due in part to being empathic to others.”

Think of gratitude as a shot that inoculates you against insults and bad news.

(To see how a similar experiment worked go to YouTube and search for “The Science of Happiness - An Experiment in Gratitude.”)

Clearly, the nation needs more than just one day of gratitude to counter the daily grind of aggression, blame, hurt and anger that swirl around us all. But science is beginning to understand what thankful people always have instinctively known. This is explains, for instance, how Abraham Lincoln could be so gracious as to pause in the midst of a civil war to ask God to “heal the wounds of the nation” on Thanksgiving Day.

It’s a good thing people weren’t allowed to post comments on the end of that.

Jay Evensen is associate editor of the Deseret News editorial page. E-mail him at even@desnews.com. For more content, visit his web site, www.jayevensen.com.

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