Buttery stuffing. Oozing gravy. Creamy mashed potatoes. The traditional Thanksgiving dinner is not for the health- or calorie-conscious. And that's before the pie.
But experts are saying that the sentiment behind our American day of feasting might actually have important benefits to health and wellness. Gratitude, apparently, can make even the most holiday-phobic among us happier, kinder, and less likely to dump cranberry sauce on our siblings' heads.
In time for the season, the New York Times reported some of the benefits of gratitude on minds and bodies based on a number of different studies. The results are impressive.
Being thankful, reaching goals, getting fit
Robert Emmons of the University of California, Davis studied the effects of gratitude by experimenting with the "gratitude journal." According to the Times, he and fellow researcher Michael E. McCullough of the University of Miami selected a group of subjects to simply record five things every week they were grateful for. After two months of this behavior, the study reports, "Participants who kept gratitude lists were more likely to have made progress toward important personal goals (academic, interpersonal and health-based)" than those who did not.
The study also showed physical changes: the authors reported those keeping gratitude journals exercised more regularly and reported fewer physical symptoms.
Gratitude instead of Ambien
Those tested who kept gratitude journals were not just more active — they were also more rested. Dr. Emmons' study included a group of adults with neuromuscular disease who underwent a "gratitude intervention" for 3 weeks. Afterward, participants reported improvements in both how much and how well they slept.
Dr. Emmons was not alone in finding a correlation between gratitude and rest. Alex Wood of the University of Manchester and colleagues published a review last year of several studies looking at the correlation between gratitude and well-being. They specifically mentioned that even among participants who were usually "sleep-impaired," ending the day with "positive pre-sleep cognitions" was a big help. Showing gratitude promoted these positive bedtime reflections, "which seemed to explain why they had better sleep overall."
Gratitude: steroids for couples
Couples who are thankful for each other — and show it — improve their relationships, according to yet another gratitude study, published last year in the "Personal Relationships" journal. Titled "It's the little things," the research concludes that people in relationships felt two things in response to day-to-day thoughtful behaviors of their significant others: indebtedness and gratitude.
It was gratitude that brought happy feelings the next day, and was concluded to have power in keeping a relationship on track. According to the authors, feelings of indebtedness showed engagement and commitment externally, but " gratitude had uniquely predictive power in relationship promotion, perhaps acting as a booster shot for the relationship."
More thankful, less aggressive
But research shows that the benefits of showing gratitude are not just reserved for romantic relationships. In September, the Social Psychological & Personality Science Journal published a study by researchers from the University of Kentucky, George Mason University, Florida State University, and Brigham Young University, who all considered the connection between gratitude and aggression.
The study concludes that gratitude is linked to lower levels of aggression. Gratitude, according to the authors, requires empathy – an impulse incompatible with aggression. The Times quotes primary author Nathan Dewall as explaining, "Gratitude is more than just feeling good. It's an equal-opportunity emotion. Anyone can experience it and benefit from it, even the most crotchety uncle at the Thanksgiving dinner table."
The pursuit of happiness
What every recent study on gratitude seems to share is that in addition to the specific benefits each noted, thankful people tended to be happier and more satisfied with their lives. The participants in Dr. Emmons' study, for example, were more enthusiastic about their activities and more optimistic about the week that lay ahead.
The Associated Press reports coauthor Michael McCullough explaining, "When you are stopping and counting your blessings, you are sort of hijacking your emotional system" — resetting yourself to see things in a new light.
And this reset can be accomplished in simple ways. Kent State University researchers Steven Toepfer and Kathleen Walker researched the effect of writing grateful letters on the well-being of a group of young adult students.
The project required participants to write three letters over three weeks to someone in their lives for whom they were thankful. Remy Melina on the site LiveScience reports the instructions were specific: no pithy thank-you notes, no throwaways. They had to mean something for the writer and the recipient.
The study concluded that the letter-writers saw increases in their levels of gratitude over time-- but also in their levels of overall happiness. For its authors, the project revealed a clear connection between being grateful and being happy. Even more importantly, the happiness was increased through intentional action on the part of individuals.
What this means? "The volitional act of writing letters of gratitude supports previous research which demonstrated that individuals have the ability to direct positive change in their lives," said the authors. People can make themselves happier.
They can do it today, by giving thanks.