How Thanksgiving Promotes Health and Happiness

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November 24, 2016 | 121,939 views

Story at-a-glance

  • Thanksgiving is a ritual celebration that fosters happiness and health. Ideally, you’ll want to practice gratitude every day; actually expressing gratitude produces the greatest benefits
  • Gratitude helps improve sleep, increase happiness and optimism, increase likelihood of engaging in healthy activities such as exercise, increase relationship satisfaction and boost work performance
  • Starting each day by thinking of all the things you have to be thankful for is one way to put your mind on the right track

By Dr. Mercola

Each year on the fourth Thursday of November, Americans gather together with friends and family for a Thanksgiving feast — a ritual that many psychologists believe actually fosters greater happiness and health.

And, while the ritual of giving thanks once a year is beneficial, doing it more often could be life changing. At least that's what science suggests.

The Benefits of Ritual Get-Togethers at Mealtime

As noted by Barbara Fiese, Ph.D., a psychologist and author of "Family Routines and Rituals:"1

"Through direct observation of family mealtimes at home, we've found that how families communicate with one another during meals is related to the children's health.

For example, when families show genuine concern about their child's daily activities … teachers report these children are less likely to show acting-out behaviors in school.

What's more, these interactions make children with chronic health conditions such as asthma feel more secure, and they're more likely to report that they feel better throughout the day."

Bill Doherty, Ph.D., a family therapist and researcher added:

"The classic outcomes of regular rituals for families are coherence (a sense of identity) and connection (a sense of closeness) …

[But] barriers to good interaction — such as cellphone use, people getting up from the table and arguments — were even more strongly related (in a negative direction) to children's psychological well-being and academic performance.

The implication is that we have to pay attention to doing some things well during meals — such as staying at the table and laughing together — but also avoid negative interactions."

Gratitude Increases Happiness — and Health

As suggested in the video above, research shows that gratitude is a cornerstone of happiness. Moreover, actually expressing your gratitude publicly or openly yields greater results than keeping it to yourself.

If you typically cringe when it's time to go around the table and share what you're grateful for, remembering the benefits you reap may ease your discomfort. As noted in a previous CNN report on gratitude and Thanksgiving:2

"… [T]here are some very practical reasons to get into the spirit of things, by taking a minute to remember the reasons you're blessed. These are lessons that can be applied year-round."

According to studies, the benefits of gratitude rituals — be it giving thanks at mealtime, keeping a gratitude journal or sending thank-you notes — include:3,4,5

Studies have also shown that gratitude can produce a number of measurable effects on a number of systems in your body, all of which can translate into improved health. Biological systems beneficially affected by gratitude include:6

Mood neurotransmitters (serotonin, norepinephrine)

Inflammatory and immune systems (cytokines)

Reproductive hormones (testosterone)

Stress hormones (cortisol)

Social bonding hormones (oxytocin)

Blood pressure, cardiac and EEG rhythms

Cognitive and pleasure related neurotransmitters (dopamine)

Blood sugar

To Feel Better, Practice Gratitude

Depending on the kind of year you've had, you may or may not feel like you have a whole lot to feel thankful for. Whether or not one should celebrate Thanksgiving and express thanks if one feels there's nothing to be thankful for is addressed in a previous New York Times article. In it, Arthur C. Brooks, Ph.D., writes:7

"It's best to be emotionally authentic, right? Wrong. Building the best life does not require fealty to feelings in the name of authenticity, but rather rebelling against negative impulses and acting right even when we don't feel like it.

In a nutshell, acting grateful can actually make you grateful. For many people, gratitude is difficult, because life is difficult … Beyond rotten circumstances, some people are just naturally more grateful than others … But we are more than slaves to our feelings, circumstances and genes.

Evidence suggests that we can actively choose to practice gratitude — and that doing so raises our happiness … If you want a truly happy holiday, choose to keep the 'thanks' in Thanksgiving, whether you feel like it or not."

Experiments have shed some light on the mechanics of how behavior shapes your emotional outlook. In one, forcibly smiling was found to trigger positive emotions — an effect related to muscles around the eyes triggering certain kinds of brain activity. Expressing gratitude has been found to have a similar effect, stimulating your:8

Gratitude Helps Bring Out the Best in Others

Expressing your gratitude also helps bring out the best in other people, making it a win-win situation all around. One study looking at people with low emotional security who were in positions of power showed that when they were criticized, the tendency was to respond with aggression.

On the other hand, when they were shown gratitude, their aggressive and denigrating behavior was significantly reduced. As noted by Brooks:

"That is, the best way to disarm an angry interlocutor is with a warm 'thank you.' I learned this lesson 10 years ago. At the time, I was an academic social scientist … writing technical articles and books that would be read by a few dozen people at most.

Soon after securing tenure, however, I published a book about charitable giving that … gained a popular audience … One afternoon, I received an unsolicited email. 'Dear Professor Brooks,' it began, 'You are a fraud.' That seemed pretty unpromising, but I read on anyway.

My correspondent made, in brutal detail, a case against every chapter of my book. As I made my way through the long email, however, my dominant thought wasn't resentment. It was, 'He read my book!' And so I wrote him back — rebutting a few of his points, but mostly just expressing gratitude for his time and attention. I felt good writing it, and his near-immediate response came with a warm and friendly tone."

The Forgotten Metric of a Successful Life

In her book, "Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-Being, Wisdom and Wonder,"9 Arianna Huffington redefines "success." She learned first-hand that without well-being, money and power will not make you happy. The four pillars of well-being (health, wisdom, wonder and giving) are what actually give your life purpose and meaning, and gratitude is part and parcel of this formula for success.

1. Health. If you sacrifice your health in the pursuit of success, you're paying an insanely high price. The result of this sacrifice includes everything from diabetes to heart disease, and other stress-related afflictions like depression, alcoholism or drug addiction.

2. Wisdom. As Arianna says: "We have a lot of very smart leaders around making terrible decisions. The problem is not that they don't have a high IQ; the problem is that they are not connected with their inner wisdom. Taking time to connect with the source of our inner wisdom and strength is essential."

3. Joy and childlike wonder. It's also important to bring joy into your everyday life, and to connect with the sense that you are part of "something larger." This includes appreciating ordinary beauty and small everyday miracles — in other words, expressing gratitude for everything you already have.

4. Giving. No complete life is ever lived just for oneself. 

Give Thanks Year-Round

The proven benefits of gratitude are such that sequestering your expression of it to a single day each year is definitely to your own detriment. If you're unsure of where or how to start, consider Brooks' suggestion, which is to begin with "interior gratitude," meaning you give thanks privately, in a journal or in prayer, for example.

Once this has become a comfortable habit, move on to "exterior gratitude" where you actually express your gratitude publicly. Writing thank-you notes, saying thank you in person, or otherwise publicly proclaiming your gratitude all fall into this category.  

"A disciplined way to put this into practice is to make it as routine as morning coffee. Write two short emails each morning to friends, family or colleagues, thanking them for what they do," Brooks writes.

Lastly, tackle the task of being grateful for "useless" or insignificant things, be it a certain smell in the air, the color of a blossom, your child's freckles or the curvature or a stone. Eventually, you may find that "bliss" is closer than you ever imagined. Mostly, it's a matter of allowing it.

Cultivating an Attitude of Gratitude as Part of a Healthy Lifestyle

Starting each day by thinking of all the things you have to be thankful for is one way to put your mind on the right track. Also remember that your future depends largely on the thoughts you think today. Each moment is an opportunity to turn your thinking around, thereby helping or hindering your ability to think and feel more positively in the very next moment.

Most experts agree there are no shortcuts to happiness. Even generally happy people do not experience joy 24 hours a day. But a happy person can have a bad day and still find pleasure in the small things in life.

Be thankful for what you have. When life gives you a 100 reasons to cry, remember the 1,000 reasons you have to smile. Face your past without regret; prepare for the future without fear; focus on what's good right now, in the present moment and practice gratitude.

Remember to say Thank You — to yourself, the Universe and others. It's wonderful to see a person smile, and even more wonderful knowing that you are the reason behind it. And with that, I wish you all a Happy and Healthy Thanksgiving!

[+]Sources and References [-]Sources and References

  • 1 Gizmodo November 26, 2015
  • 2, 3 CNN Health November 26, 2015
  • 4 Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 2003: 84(2); 377-389 (PDF)
  • 5 Harvard Mental Health Letter November 2011
  • 6 ABC News November 23, 2011
  • 7 New York Times November 21, 2015
  • 8 Cerebral Cortex 2009 Feb; 19(2): 276–283
  • 9 Huffington Post May 12, 2014