It can be hard to stay healthy during the holiday season. We often eat too much, drink too much, and spend too much time with stress-inducing out-of-town relatives. Or, we may feel lonely if we’re not with friends and family.
But look past the pumpkin pie and your aggravating in-laws, and there’s one Thanksgiving tradition that’s undoubtedly good for you: simply, the act of giving thanks.
While Thanksgiving may prompt formal expressions of gratitude around the dinner table, psychologists say that adopting a more universal “attitude of gratitude” — not just today, but every day—may lead to health benefits that range from improving immune system functioning and sleep to reducing anxiety and depression.
“While there is no real data-driven evidence on how gratitude affects the brain, research suggests that gratitude ‘stacks the deck’ toward health,” says Dr. Philip Muskin, professor of psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center. “It doesn’t have to be every minute of every day, but there are ways we can make daily decisions to be grateful.”
These daily decisions can be extremely simple, says Dr. Kelli Harding, assistant professor of psychiatry at CUMC. “I’d encourage people to focus on how small acts of gratitude can be incorporated into daily life. They can be as basic as enjoying the warmth of a cup of coffee in your hands or stopping to appreciate that you have access to clean air and drinking water.”
We all have things to be upset about and things to be grateful for. Even if we are going through a difficult time or suffering from an illness, Dr. Muskin points out, there are almost always things we take for granted—our families or caregivers, for example. While your natural tendency may be to focus on the negative moments of the day, if you choose to shift your focus, you will feel better.
One easy way to create this habit is to set a reminder in your calendar, prompting you to to pause to reflect on what you appreciate in that moment—perhaps the light traffic during your morning commute. This “gratitude reminder” may seem like an odd agenda item, but the exercise helps train your brain to reap the benefits of a grateful mindset.
An extension of this practice is to keep a gratitude journal, which has been shown to benefit mental health. In a 2003 study at UC Davis, people who kept these diaries exercised more regularly and reported feeling better about their lives. Dr. Harding points out that such a journal need not to take you outside your normal daily routine; it can be easily kept on your cell phone and logged while you wait for a train or for a meeting to start.
Saying Thank You
It’s so simple, but sincerely thanking people in our lives who may normally go unacknowledged is one of the most effective ways to practice gratitude.
Studies show that expressions of gratitude can support “pro-social” behavior and interconnectedness. This can be as basic as sending a thank-you email or stopping by the office of someone who has helped you.
These small acknowledgements lead to what Dr. Muskin refers to as the “flow effect” of gratitude: If you do something nice for someone—maybe it’s offering that genuine thank you or just holding the elevator door for a harried stranger—then that person is more likely to do something nice for someone else.
In this way, gratitude benefits more than the individual who cultivates it.
“I think of this gratitude practice as a way to impact the world one person at a time,” says Dr. Harding, “as a way individuals can make a real change in their community.”