The gratitude of Thanksgiving, a powerful healing vehicle

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. It is a time I relish because I get to be around family and friends, to cook and eat food made with love, to share in meaningful conversation, and no one has to exchange gifts. Being together with loved ones is the gift, and I am grateful for it.

Gratitude is a powerful social emotion; a deep feeling of thankfulness, one that has long reaching benefits for wellness and quality of life. And multiple studies show that aside from being a socially favorable way to be with others, generally being in a place of gratitude is good for your health and improves quality of life.

What is gratitude?

Gratitude is difficult to define, though everyone knows what it means to be grateful, and how it feels to be felt grateful for and to feel grateful for what others have done for you. It basically is a social emotion that communicates to another that you recognize what they have done for you and that you are reciprocating with words or deeds of gratitude—gratefulness, thanks. It displays your manners to others that you are polite and thus serves to enhance, at least for the time being, how others perceive you.

Yet, gratitude is not an empty social play to get more or to appease another. In fact, gratitude that is sincerely felt is experienced in the body as a change in emotional and physical wellbeing. This happens, it seems, through changes in the brain via neural correlates that have finally been observed.

Gratitude adjusts the brain

A few months ago, the journal Frontiers in Psychology published the result of a study on the neural correlates of gratitude, in which they used MRI imaging to see what is happening in the brain when one feels grateful.

A neural correlate is a brain activity that both corresponds with, and is also necessary to produce, a given experience. Thus, the neural correlates of gratitude are the events that must occur in the brain for gratitude to become manifest.

To observe its effects on the brain, participants in the study were induced gratitude while undergoing magnetic resonance imaging (an MRI scan). The study was complex, but its results “provided a window into the brain circuitry for moral cognition and positive emotion that accompanies the experience of benefitting from the goodwill of others.” This is important because until recently there were many scholars who believed that neural correlates existed. And now this study has found them, in association with gratitude, via the MRI imaging.  And according to the researchers, gratitude “leads to benefits for both mental health and interpersonal relationships.”

Gratitude supports healthy sleep

Sleep is one of those all-important aspects of good health and quality of life. Sleep deprivation causes so many health concerns, from migraine headaches, to chronic pain, forgetfulness, depression, and heart disease. The Journal of Psychosomatic Research tested whether individual differences in gratitude are related to sleep after controlling for neuroticism and other traits.

The results found that gratitude bolstered how participants rated their sleep quality. It also allowed them to fall asleep faster, sleep longer and have fewer daytime dysfunctions. This is the first study to show that a positive trait such as gratitude is related to sleep quality and duration.

Gratitude and well-being

The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology published an interesting article titled, “Counting Blessings Versus Burdens” by professors Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough. It recounted and examined the results of three studies on the effects of a grateful outlook on psychological and physical well-being (including participants with neuromuscular diseases).

The findings were direct and showed the power of gratitude. “The gratitude-outlook groups exhibited heightened well-being across several. The effect on positive affect appeared to be the most robust finding. Results suggest that a conscious focus on blessings may have emotional and interpersonal benefits.”

Emmons told The San Diego Union-Tribune that those participants who kept a list of a few things they were grateful for each days tended to exercise more, had more energy and vitality, and were less bothered by pain. He also said grateful people sleep 30 minutes more each night and exercise 33% more each week. Keeping a list of what one is grateful for, it seems, is a more powerful catalyst for wellness than merely thinking about it.

Journal your gratitude

So here we are at Thanksgiving, a time when we are supposed to be grateful for all our blessings; and in the case of my family, find the courage to stand up at the table and tell everyone what these blessings are. Nerves and shyness aside, as a child I was fearful of this but now I embrace it wholeheartedly.

Why the change? Well, I have begun journaling about gratitude because I started to think about all the things I was grateful for (like the ability to share my stories with you each week). I’ve had many journals throughout the years and one my favorites is My Gratitude Journal: 3 years of Blessings that my partner recently published. It’s great because it covers several years, one day of each year per page, so you can reflect back on what you were grateful for the same day last year or the year before. Oh, and it has these cool icons that help prompt you to think of less obvious things that you could be grateful for.

Whether you use a journal or simply make a list of several things per day for which you are grateful, I challenge you to do so and see for yourself the up-lift in your quality of life and feelings of well-being. And what better time of year than Thanksgiving and the extended holiday season, to begin.

Dr. Mark Wiley

By Dr. Mark Wiley

Dr. Mark Wiley is an internationally renowned mind-body health practitioner, author, motivational speaker and teacher. He holds doctorates in both Oriental and alternative medicine, has done research in eight countries and has developed a model of health and wellness grounded in a self-directed, self-cure approach. Dr. Wiley has written 14 books and more than 500 articles. He serves on the Health Advisory Boards of several wellness centers and associations while focusing his attention on helping people achieve healthy and balanced lives through his work with Easy Health Options® and his company, Tambuli Media.