Some Thanksgiving traditions are best in small doses, like pie binges, chair naps and televised parade coverage. But thanks to a group of scientists at the University of California-Berkeley, the holiday’s namesake spirit of gratitude is quickly outgrowing its November context, fed by research that points to wide-ranging health benefits from a steady diet of thankfulness.
The Greater Good Science Center, based at UC-Berkeley, has been studying “the psychology, sociology and neuroscience of well-being” for 12 years, including a recent study on the science of gratitude. That project aims to explain how feeling thankful affects human health, eventually yielding evidence-based practices to be used in schools, workplaces and medical settings.
“Because so much of human life is about giving, receiving and repaying, gratitude is a pivotal concept for our social interactions,” UC-Davis psychologist and gratitude expert Robert Emmons writes on the GGSC website. “Despite the fact that it forms the foundation of social life in many other cultures, in America, we usually don’t give it much thought — with a notable exception of one day, Thanksgiving.”
The GGSC recently awarded $10,000 grants to several research projects on gratitude (for which the recipients were surely grateful), and in 2014 will relaunch the online gratitude journal Thnx4.org. The group is also planning a public event that would “help bridge the research-practice gap.” In the meantime, here’s a closer look at some potential benefits year-round gratitude can bring:
1. Less stress, better moods
Grateful people tend to be happier, according to research cited by the GGSC. A 2003 study used a questionnaire to test “dispositional gratitude,” linking it to several measures of subjective well-being and reporting that “grateful thinking improved mood.” A 2010 study tied gratitude to reduced anxiety and depression, stating it’s “strongly related to well-being, however defined, and this link may be unique and causal.” It also noted the potential for gratitude exercises in clinical psychology.
2. Less pain, more gain
Beyond helping us exorcise anxiety, gratitude might also help us exercise. It “encourages us to exercise more and take better care of our health,” the GGSC says, and research by Emmons and University of Miami psychologist Michael McCullough suggests it contributes to a wide range of physical health benefits, including a stronger immune system, reduced disease symptoms and lower blood pressure. It can even make people “less bothered by aches and pains,” the GGSC adds.
3. Better sleep
A good night’s sleep can make anyone thankful, but a 2009 study found the reverse is true, too. Grateful people get more hours of sleep per night, fall asleep more quickly and feel more refreshed upon waking. “This is the first study to show that a positive trait is related to good sleep quality above the effect of other personality traits,” the study’s authors wrote, adding it’s “also the first to show … gratitude is related to sleep and to explain why this occurs, suggesting future directions for research and novel clinical implications.” As the GGSC puts it, “to sleep more soundly, count blessings, not sheep.”
4. Stronger relationships
Expressing gratitude to a relationship partner — whether a close friend, colleague or significant other — “enhances one’s perception of the relationship’s communal strength,” according to a 2010 study. Feeling thankful for a friend’s generosity or a spouse’s patience helps you appreciate the relationship’s mutual give-and-take, as long as gratitude doesn’t mutate into feelings of indebtedness. “Although indebtedness may maintain external signals of relationship engagement,” the authors of another study wrote in 2010, “gratitude had uniquely predictive power in relationship promotion, perhaps acting as a booster shot for the relationship.”
Misfortune itself is rarely cause for thanks, but Emmons says a broader sense of gratitude — religious or not — comes from learning to take nothing for granted. “Our national holiday of gratitude, Thanksgiving, was born and grew out of hard times,” he writes for the GGSC. “The first Thanksgiving took place after nearly half the pilgrims died from a rough winter and year. It became a national holiday in 1863 in the middle of the Civil War and was moved to its current date in the 1930s following the Depression.” Even among war veterans with post-traumatic stress syndrome, a 2006 study found that dispositional gratitude predicted things like daily self-esteem, “daily intrinsically motivating activity” and percentage of pleasant days “over and above” the severity of PTSD.