Photo by Katie Harris/Flickr, cc by-nc-nd 2.0
Don’t worry. The article you are about to read has nothing to do with what you should or shouldn’t put on your Thanksgiving dinner plate. There’s nothing worse than having your hopes for the perfect holiday meal dashed by someone telling you that you might want to think twice before choosing this or that side dish.
No, this article is about the undeniable health benefits of thanksgiving — that is, the conscious expression of gratitude — itself.
Gratitude is extolled by every religion on earth as an essential virtue. Cicero, the renowned Roman orator, called it “not only the greatest of the virtues but the parent of all others.” Only recently, however, have medical researchers begun delving into the impact gratitude has on our mental and physical health.
One of the leaders in this field is U.C. Davis psychologist Robert Emmons, editor-in-chief of The Journal of Positive Psychology and author of the book Thanks! How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier.”
Considered a pioneer in the field of “positive psychology” — a discipline that focuses less on illness and emotional problems and more on health-inducing behavior — Emmons makes a convincing case for the upside of maintaining a thankful attitude.
In one of Emmons’ studies, participants were divided into three groups. At the end of each week one group wrote down five things they were grateful for. Another group kept track of daily hassles. And a control group listed five events that had made some impression on them. In the end, Emmons discovered that those in the gratitude group generally felt better about their lives, were more optimistic about the future and — perhaps most importantly — reported fewer health problems than the other participants.
Mmmmm… nothing like a little gratitude to balance that extra helping of mashed potatoes.
Like many others, I can relate to what Dr. Emmons is discovering about the connection between a grateful heart and a healthy heart. But for me it goes even further, deeper than that. Over the years I’ve found that gratitude grounded in my spiritual practice, and not mere positive thinking, is the real key to consistent health.
Emmons notes this himself in his citation of a 2002 study (McCullough et. al.) that found that those who attend religious services or engage regularly in some type of religious activity such as prayer are more likely to be grateful. This is not to say that you have to be religious in order to be grateful, only that our faith tends to enhance our ability to be grateful.
While I have no idea what I’ll be having for dinner this Thanksgiving, one thing I’m absolutely certain of is that keeping track of what and how I think is at least as important as what I eat. Experience has shown that putting first things first will keep everything else — including my health — in order.
Eric Nelson is the media and legislative spokesperson for Christian Science in Northern California who likes to follow and write about trends in science, theology, and medicine.
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