How giving thanks can make you happier and healthier

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By Jess Scott Wright, RDN

Celebrations of gratitude have been deeply rooted in history for centuries, long before 1941, when congress officially declared the fourth Thursday of November as Thanksgiving Day.

Although thankfulness traditions have evolved since 1621 when our ancestors at Plymouth Plantation shared the first Thanksgiving feast, the upcoming holiday reminds us, at least for one day, to be grateful, an emotion that scientists suggest when practiced regularly can improve health and happiness for the long haul.

Several studies have shown individuals with a positive outlook exercise more, have more energy, sleep better, feel happier and have a higher immune response compared to those who focus on life’s frustrations.

“Grateful people take better care of themselves and engage in more protective health behaviors like regular exercise, a healthy diet, regular physical examinations,” said Dr. Robert Emmons, expert on the role of gratitude in positive psychology. In his book, “Thanks: How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier,” Emmons explains how positive thinking can impact our bodies and health: “We tend to take better care of something if we see it as a gift.”

Think about something or someone for which or for whom you are grateful. Close your eyes and focus on it. What else do you feel?

Whether you are being kind to someone else, being acknowledged by another or taking a moment to count your blessings, gratitude is usually accompanied by a charge of positivity. The challenging beauty of gratitude is that it’s a choice, like a light with a switch – you can turn it on or off. Even in times of tragedy or upset, you can choose to be grateful.

Now think of something that upsets you – maybe a pet peeve or an upsetting person or situation. What emotions come to mind?

Reflecting on frustrations give rise to venting, a form of negative expression in which we focus energy on the things for which we are ungrateful. Is it relieving to “let it out” sometimes? Of course, but perhaps life would look different if we spent more energy on absorbing positivity instead of unleashing negativity.

According to the World Health Organization, 350 million people worldwide suffer from some type of depressive disorder. This is a saddening statistic when you consider that a majority of people wished for happiness over wealth, health and success in an experiment discussed by Dr. Robert Holden in his book “Be Happy: Release the Power of Happiness in You.”

It’s no secret that your mental state can have profound impacts on our physiological state and vice versa – how you feel physically can easily influence your mood. Just as stress has been shown to increase risk of heart disease, Dr. Emmons points out several studies showing a conscious application of optimistic emotions like gratitude may improve heart health and much more.

The pursuit of happiness implies achieving a state of fixed happiness at some point in the future after a person has succeeded in becoming richer, faster, stronger, thinner, better looking or any of the other things commonly associated with the right to feel happy.

In an age of instant gratification, it is often overlooked that you can cultivate happiness as quickly as you can choose it. In their study published in the Review of General Psychology, psychologists Sonja Lyubomirsky, Kennon Sheldon and David Schkade found 40 percent of one’s ability to be happy is based on intentional activity.

It’s a practice that requires conscious effort, and while you can’t always choose your circumstances, you can choose how you react to them. Gratitude is choosing to recognize happiness in the present.

Here are a few tips to teach yourself to be happy and grateful every day:

Keep a gratitude journal, a written daily log of what you’re grateful for or even a recap of 3–5 new things each week. Researchers suggest even something as simple as writing about the positive aspects of your day for 15 minutes before bed can improve sleep quality and duration.

Perform random acts of kindness. Being kind feels good. Take a few extra seconds to hold the door or elevator for someone, pay a stranger a compliment, or call a loved one randomly to tell them how wonderful they are. Don’t take offense if the skeptical ones react with, “Do you need to borrow money or something?” When they realize you don’t, it’ll mean even more!

Write a letter. Take a few minutes to put the personal touch on a handwritten message to someone. Once in a while, write one to yourself acknowledging your strengths.

Thanksgiving is a perfect opportunity to be in touch with your thankful side. It is an annual reminder for many Americans to consciously count their blessings and take time to recognize the good things in life that are often taken for granted in the hustle and bustle of everyday life in the pursuit of happiness.

This year, notice your mood when you are actively grateful through the holiday season. Challenge yourself to continue the momentum and see how your happiness and health improves through the new year. Oh, and thank you for reading! Feel free to contact Jess with any questions/comments on twitter @nutritionwiser or email her at nutritionwiser@gmail.com.

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