Thanksgiving and health tend to not go hand in hand: The average American consumed 3,000 calories during their big family dinner.
Despite this, there are health benefits that come with the holiday. (And no, we’re not talking about the meager amount of veggies you get from eating Aunt Sue’s green-bean casserole.)
The act of giving thanks is good for our physical and mental health. Gratitude is a habit worth cultivating and practicing not just around Thanksgiving, but all year round.
Here is what the science says about the transformative power of gratitude:
1. Gratitude Alleviates Pain
The connection between mind and body is becoming more evident each year. How we think directly influences how we experience sensations, including pain.
A 2012 study published in Personality and Individual Differences found that people who are grateful experience fewer aches and pains and report feeling healthier than less grateful people.
Others have reported that grateful people tend to take better care of themselves. They exercise more, eat better, and make time for annual health checkups. This may also contribute to improved feelings of wellness.
2. Gratitude Improves Health
Most studies on gratitude and health rely on self-reported results. In 2016, a group of researchers set out to determine whether the health benefits of gratitude could be measured objectively. They ran a study of heart failure patients in which half of the patients were asked to keep a gratitude journal and half received treatment as usual.
The researchers reported that biomarkers for heart failure, such as inflammation, were reduced in the gratitude group.
3. Grateful People Sleep Better
Adequate sleep is critical for mental and physical health. Yet, so many of us toss and turn all night with troubled thoughts.
In 2003, two psychologists asked a group of people to make nightly lists of the things they were thankful for. In just three weeks, the study participants said they were getting more sleep and feeling more refreshed in the morning.
The correlation between gratitude and sleep quality is intriguing. Researchers have also discovered that poor sleep makes us less grateful.
4. Grateful People Make Better Choices with Food
Here’s a good reason to practice gratitude before and during the Thanksgiving meal. Gratitude may stop you from overeating. (We know, when confronted with a delicious holiday spread, no force in the world can prevent you from going overboard at least a little.)
A cognitive scientist that specializes in eating told Time, “Gratitude replenishes willpower.” Thinking about the things you’re grateful for can give you a surge of impulse control.
So, this holiday season, whenever you feel like grabbing a third helping, slow down and count your blessings. You may realize you’re perfectly full and content after all.
5. Gratitude Can Change Your Brain
Mental health experts associate gratitude with a host of psychological benefits. Studies show being thankful can improve relationships, ease depression, excise toxic emotions (such as envy and resentment), and enhance empathy. Moreover, the positive effects of gratitude are long-lasting.
In a study supported by the Greater Good Science Center at U.C. Berkley, nearly 300 mental health therapy patients were split into three groups. One group was told to write a letter of gratitude to another person once a week for three weeks. Another group was asked to write down their feelings about negative experiences. The third group wrote nothing.
The researchers said that the group that wrote the thank-you notes reported significantly better mental health four weeks and 12 weeks after their writing assignments.
When the scientists put some of the study participants in an MRI scanner three months later, they noticed “greater activation in the medial prefrontal cortex” among the letter-writing group.
“While not conclusive, this finding suggests that practicing gratitude may help train the brain to be more sensitive to the experience of gratitude down the line,” the scientists wrote.
Fostering Gratitude at Work
If the science is right, gratitude is something we can learn and get better at. And as we do, our minds and bodies improve for the better.
There are a number of ways to help your employees practice gratitude:
- Say “thanks.” When people feel appreciated, they tend to give it right back. Managers should make it a point to let their hardworking team members know how much they’re valued.
- Launch a gratitude challenge such as the Express Thanks Challenge, which invites participants to handwrite 20 thank you notes in 30 days.
- Bring in speakers on thankfulness. For example, you could host a workshop on how to write a daily gratitude journal.
- Encourage mindfulness. Meditation goes hand-in-hand with gratitude.
A culture of gratitude won’t spring up overnight in your office. We’re so accustomed to grumbling and complaining, it can be hard to see all the good in our lives. But if you nurture gratitude within your organization, little by little, it will take hold, transforming the health and outlook of your employees.