Lots of things come to mind when we think about Thanksgiving. We might think about turkey, stuffing, turkeys crossing Pleasant Street, football, turkey trots, powder puff football, pumpkin pie or family gatherings.
Traditionally, Thanksgiving invites each of us to consider the things we feel grateful for in our lives. As our world feels so rife with struggle, violence and painful conflict, it can be a welcome pause to reflect instead on gratitude. As a concept, it seems easy enough to think about, but as an expression, giving thanks unfortunately appears to be losing its value.
There is evidence that when we concentrate on things that we appreciate and feel grateful for, our serotonin and dopamine levels increase. These chemicals in our brain control some of the moods that we experience, and if we get a boost to these levels, we can find ourselves experiencing an improved feeling of happiness, social and emotional well-being and hope.
It’s possible that intrinsic gratitude can contribute to sustaining our mental health.
According to Dr. Kimberly Howard, who serves on the Marblehead Mental Health Task Force, “People most readily understand the connection between gratitude and happiness. But the benefits of gratitude go behind ‘a happier you,’ which are the psychological benefits. There are also physical and social benefits as well. Gratitude can lower stress levels, support better sleeping, strengthen the immune system and reduce the experience of aches and pains. It can help you communicate better with and display more empathy toward others, helping to build stronger interpersonal relationships.”
She also encouraged, “We can learn gratitude. This is not a ‘you either have it or you don’t’ type of characteristic.”
It may be valuable to think of gratitude as less an emotion and more as a behavior. The act of gratitude can be offered and received, and both efforts bring benefit to us and those we interact with. Instead of just expressing gratitude to those that do us a favor, Emiliana Simon-Thomas, science director at the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley, describes Gratitude 1, 2, 3, which recommends we be specific in expressing our gratitude. For example, “Thank you for helping me gather the leaves. I’m so glad I didn’t have to stress about them blowing into everyone else’s yard. You showing up to help me brightened my day and made a daunting task so much lighter.” 1. What the person did, 2. Acknowledge the effort, 3. How it helped.
Simon-Thomas points out that “Gratitude is a way to activate closeness, trust and safety.”
Additionally, accepting or receiving gratitude has benefits, even though it may feel difficult. We’re used to saying, “It’s nothing. No problem,” but it can be worthwhile not to minimize when someone expresses their gratitude to us. Instead, take the time to hear it and accept the gesture of appreciation. When we focus on positive, purposeful, peaceful, joyful calmness, we make less room for negative feelings as a result.
The science around engaging with gratitude is compelling and inspiring. R.A. Emmons examined the effects of practicing gratitude across different demographics. He found a daily gratitude intervention with young adults resulted in higher reported levels of the positive states of alertness and energy compared to a focus on assets or a downward social comparison (ways in which participants thought they were better than others).
He found a related benefit in the realm of personal goal attainment: Participants who kept gratitude lists were more likely to have made progress toward important goals (academic, interpersonal and health-based). And participants in the daily gratitude practice were more likely to report having helped someone with a personal problem or having offered emotional support to another, indicating that the practice can benefit ourselves and those we interact with, so potentially, an exponential benefit.
So as we delight in coming together with our families, feasting beside those whom we love and value, and those with whom we struggle, it’s worthwhile to embrace the blessings we count and marinate a bit in feeling thankful. And extending our gratitude to others, perhaps including new faces to our table, or reaching out to a family in need, we can support our own mental health and lift the health of those around us. Every bit helps. The defining and beneficial properties of practicing gratitude are proven and worthwhile to consciously choose and cultivate.
Susan Stelk and Board of Health Member Joanne Miller are members of Marblehead Mental Health Task Force. Stelk is a licensed independent clinical social worker.