Arts & Sciences

Health benefits of gratitude can last all year

Picture the classic Thanksgiving meal. Beyond the turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes, it’s a moment steeped in giving thanks – a feast of gratitude.
“All cultures show appreciation and gratitude, although not always in the same way. Western cultures tend to be more about gift-giving, others more about acts of service,” said Vanessa Holtgrave, Psy.D., assistant professor of psychology at Brandman University.

GratitudeAlthough her background is in forensic and clinical psychology, Holtgrave loves gratitude as a topic from a positive psychology point of view.

“Most people don’t really understand gratitude, that it is more of a moral emotion, a higher level of thinking. It’s a recognition of goodness on a higher level,” Holtgrave said. She places it alongside empathy and guilt as a moral emotion, even though it’s mentioned less often in psychological literature.

While she has no problem with people giving thanks on the holiday devoted to it, she said there’s a lot of things people can do that go beyond Thanksgiving Day.

“One of the things we can do from a psychological perspective is to cultivate grateful thinking. Changing our thoughts can change us emotionally and change our behavior,” she said.

Some of the benefits of gratitude she lists are:

  • Gratitude influences physical, psychological, and spiritual well-being. 
  • Grateful people tend to feel more positive emotions more frequently (such as enjoyment, enthusiasm, benevolence, optimism, authentic happiness)
  • Reduced depression, anxiety, and envy
  • Increased ability to cope with everyday stress
Vanessa Holtgrave
Assisstant Professor Vanessa Holtgrave, Psy.D.                    

People with a strong sense of gratitude reportedly sleep better, feel more satisfied with life and are quicker to forgive, she said.

Holgrave keeps a gratitude journal, writing down each day something for which she’s grateful. Reviewing it helps her remember events both large and small.

“Writing doesn’t work for everyone,” she said. She has a friend who sets an alarm on her phone. “When it goes off, she just thinks about what she’s grateful for.”

Action needed

It’s important to do more than feel grateful, she said. “Say thank you at least once a day.”

Expressing gratitude – whether with a “Thank you” or through actions such as gift-giving, volunteering or leaving a note or card for a coworker, family members or friends – builds positive relationships and helps to foster gratitude in others.

Remember, too, that actions often speak louder than words. A friend who eats everything you prepare for a meal, even if offering a critique of a particular dish, is still expression appreciation, even if “thank you” is never voiced. That same person might also be someone who is quick to offer support or the first to volunteer to do the dishes.

Psychological barriers

As a psychologist who has worked in school settings, Holtgave said emphasizing gratitude is particularly important when working with students who are depressed. “It’s a way to change negative thinking,” she said. “The inability to feel joy hampers gratitude.”

Even for those not clinically depressed, our negative dialogues with ourselves can get in the way. “We can all let our bad days get to us. By all means, have your bad day but try not to let it affect other people,” she said.

Identifying contrasts, such as appreciating a mild spring after a harsh winter, can help get people out of their “tunnel thinking,” she said. 

People who know how to express gratitude tend to rub off on the rest of us. “I have a friend who will reflect aloud, and then I do it, too. It’s contagious. She loves her life in a very positive way, and that’s admirable,” Holtgrave said. It’s a reminder that the sources of goodness can also lie outside oneself.

“In short, gratitude makes life happier and more satisfying. Gratitude is too good to be left at the Thanksgiving table.”

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