An Attitude of Gratitude: Benefits of Giving Thanks

Thanksgiving is just around the corner, which means everyone is thinking about turkey, stuffing, the Macy’s parade, football games, noisy relatives, and either highway traffic or long airport security lines.  Oh, and something about giving thanks…

When Abraham Lincoln proclaimed in 1863 that the last Thursday of November would thereafter be set apart as “a day of Thanksgiving and Praise,” he recognized the human tendency to take for granted the little things that make our lives livable. In establishing this national holiday, President Lincoln conveyed that giving thanks was extremely important for the public good.

Recently, psychologists have shown renewed interest in the concept of gratitude, defined as “a life orientation towards noticing and appreciating the positive.”  A personal sense of gratitude has been associated with experiencing more positive emotions (and less anger, hostility, or depression), having more fulfilling relationships, and greater self-acceptance. Those who describe feeling more grateful also report lower stress levels and health benefits like more restful sleep.

All that said, as any savvy consumer of science will tell you, correlation does not imply causation; people who are happier, more fulfilled, and less stressed may simply have more for which they can be thankful.

The more interesting – and potentially useful – findings come from studies on “gratitude interventions.” In this type of research, participants are asked to try doing something to impact their sense of gratitude; for example, making daily lists of things for which they are grateful or spending five minutes reflecting on positive aspects of their life.  Gratitude interventions appear to prompt both short-term and long-term increases in positive mood, self-reported happiness, life satisfaction, and well-being and decreases in depression, worry, and – of particular interest to our team at the Columbia Center for Eating Disorders – body dissatisfaction.

In other words, the data support Honest Abe’s intuition that taking time to be grateful has tangible benefits for the thanks-giver.  So, how can you cultivate thanks-giving this Thanksgiving?

  • Center yourself in the present moment.
    • Practice being mindful, even in the midst of holiday hassles.  Using your five senses to increase awareness of what is happening in the here and now sets the stage for experiencing gratitude.
  • Accept things just as they are.
    • Maybe this Thanksgiving isn’t what you had hoped it would be.  Maybe you’re missing family members who couldn’t spend the holiday with you or you’re coping with a friend or family member’s eating disorder.  Acceptance means being willing to say, “It’s not perfect, and that’s okay.”  Accepting reality doesn’t mean approving of it – you can wish for things to be different than they are – but rather simply acknowledging that things are as they are and starting from there.
    • Get rid of “shoulds” – preferences, goals, and aspirations encourage; “shoulds” and “oughts” discourage.  Try to catch the “shoulds” that discourage you and reframe them as preferences or desires.  Look out particularly for “shoulds” related to eating and weight (e.g., “I shouldn’t have a second helping” or “I ought to be able to fit in that dress”) and aim instead for balance and flexibility.
  • Choose to see the positive and avoid unhelpful comparisons.
    • You’re aware of your surroundings and you accept them as they are; the next challenge is to avoid discounting or minimizing positive experiences.  Look out for negative interpretations (e.g., “My neighbor only invited me over for Thanksgiving dinner because she feels sorry for me.”) and try to consider them from a different angle (e.g., “Maybe my neighbor would like to be better friends with me.”).  Then let gratitude enter the picture (e.g., “I am grateful for my neighbor and her generosity.”).
    • Don’t lose sight of what you have by comparing yourself to others.  If you notice yourself thinking, “He’s in such better shape than I am” or “I always end up eating more than everyone else,” shift your focus inward and gently – and gratefully – remind yourself of your positive attributes.

Like many aspects of our thinking, grateful thoughts may not arise spontaneously and may require concentrated effort to call to mind.  Set aside a few minutes each day to reflect on the goodness of the people, things, and experiences you’ve encountered.  Consider those less fortunate, and let your feelings of gratitude inspire greater empathy, compassion, and goodwill towards others.

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