Thursday November 22, 2012

On this day of giving thanks, we are asked to count our blessings and show appreciation for all the good things we've been given in life from family, friends and strangers alike.

While we encourage all of our readers to be thankful every day, we also urge them to take a few minutes today to express gratitude to those around them and tell them exactly why they are thankful.

This is not only beneficial for our relationships, it's also proven to be good for physical and mental well-being, from boosting optimism to shoring up immunity.

John Tierney, writing for the New York Times, noted that cultivating an attitude of gratitude has been linked to better health, sounder sleep, less anxiety and depression, higher long-term satisfaction with life and kinder behavior toward others, including romantic partners.

Psychologist Paul Wink of Wellesley College studied nearly 200 individuals who have been followed closely since the 1920s, when they were children, and found that giving protected longevity as well as mental health even half a century later, noted Stephen Post and Jill Neimark in "Why Good Things Happen to Good People."

And according to a study by Doug Oman of the University of California at Berkeley, people who volunteered for two or more organizations had a 44-percent lower likelihood of dying.

Sociologist Marc Musick of the University of Texas at Austin found that individuals over 65 who volunteer are significantly less likely to die over the next eight years than those who do no volunteer work.

Neal Krause of the University of Michigan found that offering social support to others reduced their anxiety over their own economic situation when they were under economic stress.

Feeling grateful is also important for those among us who often lack the tools to deal with stress, our children.

Youth who engaged in self-guided gratitude exercises had higher levels of positive states of alertness, enthusiasm, determination, attentiveness and energy compared to their peers and children who practice grateful thinking have more positive attitudes toward themselves, school and their families.

Self-guided gratitude exercises can include keeping a gratitude journal and every week jotting down five things for which we are grateful, recommended UC Davis Professor Richard Emmons.

They don't have to be huge life-changing events, but can be as simple as flipping an egg without breaking the yolk or someone giving you a stamp for an envelope.

Those who kept gratitude journals on a weekly basis exercised more regularly, reported fewer physical symptoms, felt better about their lives as a whole, and were more optimistic about the upcoming week compared to those who recorded hassles or neutral life events, said Emmons.

He also learned that people who kept gratitude journals were more likely to make progress toward important personal goals.

Patricia Campbell Carlson, executive director of A Network for Grateful Living suggests people give thanks for the little things in life.

"Before taking your first sip of orange juice in the morning, for example, pause and be grateful for that juice," she told the Christian Science Monitor.

Try a self-guided gratitude exercise today, suggested Sonja Lyubomirsky of the University of California, Riverside.

"Do one small and unobtrusive thoughtful or generous thing for each member of your family on Thanksgiving," she advises. "Say thank you for every thoughtful or kind gesture. Express your admiration for someone's skills or talents -- wielding that kitchen knife so masterfully, for example. And truly listen, even when your grandfather is boring you again with the same World War II story."

People who express gratitude are also better equipped to deal with criticism, which can come in handy during a long Thanksgiving dinner, because gratitude helps people become less aggressive by enhancing their empathy, Nathan DeWall told the New York Times.

"It's an equal-opportunity emotion. Anyone can experience it and benefit from it, even the most crotchety uncle at the Thanksgiving dinner table," said DeWall.

"More than other emotion, gratitude is the emotion of friendship," Michael McCullough, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Miami told the Times. "It is part of a psychological system that causes people to raise their estimates of how much value they hold in the eyes of another person. Gratitude is what happens when someone does something that causes you to realize that you matter more to that person than you thought you did."

Emmons said Thanksgiving is a good time to reconnect with a sense of gratefulness that has become secondary to other things in our culture.

"We have lost a deep sense of gratefulness about the freedoms we enjoy, a lack of gratitude toward those who lost their lives in the fight for freedom, a lack of gratitude for all the material advantages we have," he says. "The focus of Thanksgiving should be a reflection of how our lives have been made so much more comfortable by the sacrifices of those who have come before us."