As a physician, I have helped to care for many patients and families whose lives have been turned upside down by serious illnesses and injuries.
In the throes of such catastrophes, it can be difficult to find cause for anything but lament.
Yet Thanksgiving presents us with an opportunity to develop one of the healthiest, most life-affirming and convivial of all habits — that of counting and rejoicing in our blessings.
Research shows that grateful people tend to be healthy and happy. They exhibit lower levels of stress and depression, cope better with adversity and sleep better. They tend to be happier and more satisfied with life. Even their partners tend to be more content with their relationships.
Perhaps when we are more focused on the good things we enjoy in life, we have more to live for and tend to take better care of ourselves and each other.
When researchers asked people to reflect on the past week and write about things that either irritated them or about which they felt grateful, those tasked with recalling good things are more optimistic, feel better about their lives, and actually visit their physicians less.
It is no surprise that receiving thanks makes people happier, but so does expressing gratitude. An experiment that asked participants to write and deliver thank-you notes found large increases in reported levels of happiness, a benefit that lasted for an entire month.
One of the greatest minds in Western history, the Greek philosopher Aristotle, argued that we become what we habitually do. By changing our habits, we can become more thankful human beings.
Our big human brains make Thanksgiving possible for us — and no other animals
If we spend our days ruminating on all that has gone poorly and how dark the prospects for the future appear, we can think ourselves into misery and resentment.
But we can also mold ourselves into the kind of people who seek out, recognize and celebrate all that we have to be grateful for.
This is not to say that anyone should become a Pollyanna, ceaselessly reciting the mantra from Voltaire’s “Candide”: “All is for the best in this, the best of all possible worlds.” There are injustices to be righted and wounds to be healed, and ignoring them would represent a lapse of moral responsibility.
When you’re grateful, your brain becomes more charitable
But reasons to make the world a better place should never blind us to the many good things it already affords. How can we be compassionate and generous if we are fixated on deficiency? This explains why the great Roman statesman Cicero called gratitude not only the greatest of virtues but the “parent” of them all.
Gratitude is deeply embedded in many religious traditions. In Judaism, the first words of the morning prayer could be translated, “I thank you.” Another saying addresses the question, “Who is rich?” with this answer: “Those who rejoice in what they have.”
From a Christian perspective, too, gratitude and thanksgiving are vital. Before Jesus shares his last meal with his disciples, he gives thanks. So vital a part of Christian life is gratitude that author and critic G.K. Chesterton calls it “the highest form of thought.”
Gratitude also plays an essential role in Islam. The 55th chapter of the Quran enumerates all the things human beings have to be grateful for — the sun, moon, clouds, rain, air, grass, animals, plants, rivers and oceans — and then asks, “How can a sensible person be anything but thankful to God?”
Other traditions also stress the importance of thankfulness. Hindu festivals celebrate blessings and offer thanks for them. In Buddhism, gratitude develops patience and serves as an antidote to greed, the corrosive sense that we never have enough.
Roots even in suffering
In his 1994 book, “A Whole New Life,” Duke University English professor Reynolds Price describes how his battle with a spinal cord tumor that left him partially paralyzed also taught him a great deal about what it means to really live.
After surgery, Price describes “a kind of stunned beatitude.” With time, though diminished in many ways by his tumor and its treatment, he learns to pay closer attention to the world around him and those who populate it.Reflecting on the change in his writing, Price notes that his books differ in many ways from those he penned as a younger man. Even his handwriting, he says, “looks very little like that of the man he was at the time of his diagnosis.”
“Cranky as it is, it’s taller, more legible, and with more air and stride. And it comes down the arm of a grateful man.”
A brush with death can open our eyes. Some of us emerge with a deepened appreciation for the preciousness of each day, a clearer sense of our real priorities and a renewed commitment to celebrating life. In short, we can become more grateful, and more alive, than ever.
Why being an optimist is good for your heart
When it comes to practicing gratitude, one trap to avoid is locating happiness in things that make us feel better off — or simply better — than others. In my view, such thinking can foster envy and jealousy.
There are marvelous respects in which we are equally blessed — the same sun shines down upon each of us, we all begin each day with the same 24 hours, and each of us enjoys the free use of one of the most complex and powerful resources in the universe, the human brain.
Much in our culture seems aimed to cultivate an attitude of deficiency — for example, most ads aim to make us think that to find happiness we must buy something. Yet most of the best things in life — the beauty of nature, conversation and love — are free.
There are many ways to cultivate a disposition of thankfulness. One is to make a habit of giving thanks regularly — at the beginning of the day, at meals and the like, and at day’s end.
Likewise, holidays, weeks, seasons and years can be punctuated with thanks — grateful prayer or meditation, writing thank-you notes, keeping a gratitude journal, and consciously seeking out the blessings in situations as they arise.
Gratitude can become a way of life, and by developing the simple habit of counting our blessings, we can enhance the degree to which we are truly blessed.
Richard Gunderman, The Conversation
Richard Gunderman is the Chancellor’s Professor of medicine, liberal arts and philanthropy at Indiana University. Thu November 28, 2019
source: www.cnn.com The Conversation
How Thanksgiving gratitude may improve your health
Show your gratitude this Thanksgiving. It’s good for your health.
Expressing gratitude improves cardiovascular strength, sleep quality and more, researchers say.
“Gratitude enhances performance in every domain that’s been examined, psychological relational, emotional, physical,” said Robert Emmons, a professor and psychologist at the University of California, Davis. “This is why it’s been referred to as the ultimate performance-enhancing substance.”
The field of gratitude health studies is still young, but researchers say that practicing gratitude may positively affect physical health in two main ways: It can change your biology and your behavior.
“A health behavior change is when someone that practices gratitude ends up engaging in more self-care behaviors, or following the directions of their care provider more closely,” said Emiliana Simon-Thomas, science director at the Greater Good Science Center, an interdisciplinary research center at UC Berkley. “Sometimes you’ll find that a study reports that a particular gratitude intervention leads to lower blood pressure — that’s the biology pathway.”
Gratitude “interventions” are a method that researchers use to determine how expressing gratitude may be directly causing positive health effects. A common approach is to ask participants to write down what they’re grateful for each day in a “gratitude journal” or to pen “gratitude letters.”
Several studies have concluded that keeping a gratitude journal improves physical health. A 2015 study of 119 women at the University College London found that just two weeks of keeping a gratitude journal can improve sleep quality and decrease blood pressure.
Researchers at UC San Diego came to a similar conclusion the following year. A 2016 study of nearly 70 men and women at risk of heart failure asked participants to keep a gratitude journal for eight weeks. Researchers found that, over time, the participants who kept gratitude journals had lower levels of inflammation, a biomarker of heart failure.
“Along the lines of physical exercise, a healthier diet, or higher-quality sleep, gratitude is worth the time,” Simon-Thomas said.
Practicing gratitude is also tied to lower stress levels, Simon-Thomas said, because people who regularly express gratitude have a greater capacity to regulate emotions in a constructive way. It can even “short-circuit” the body’s stress response.
“The holiday season can be very stressful,” Emmons said. “People are exhausted, worn down and worn out, feeling depleted and defeated. That is why gratitude is especially important this time of year. Grateful people less likely to experience envy, anger, resentment, regret and other unpleasant states that produce stress and thwart positive emotions.”
Jeff Huffman, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and director of the Cardiac Psychiatry Research Program at Massachusetts General Hospital, says the field of gratitude studies still has a lot of ground to cover. In the past 15 years, there have been less than ten trials of gratitude-based interventions in patients with chronic health conditions, according to an article published this year in the British Journal of Health Psychology.
“At this point, we are not quite there in terms of conclusively saying that experiencing or expressing gratitude is linked to better physical health,” Huffman said. “More definitive study is needed.”
Huffman said his team of researchers is currently looking into how gratitude-based interventions may help heart attack victims recover faster and better. “We hope to have answers in the not-to-distant future,” he said.
Grace Hauck USA TODAY Nov. 28 / 19