This is the time of year for conflicting messages. One day we’re eating turkey with family and friends, giving thanks for all that is good in our lives. The very next day, though, we’re bombarded with ads for all the things we don’t have. It’s tempting to move on quickly—some Black Friday sales actually begin on Thanksgiving itself!—but in doing so we’d miss the opportunity to deepen our sense of gratitude, and improve our health, too.
For all the platitudes about it—like the encouragement to adopt “an attitude of gratitude”—gratitude is a very sacred concept. Unlike indebtedness (which involves repayment) or simple appreciation (which lacks a sense of wonder and humility), gratitude allows a person to connect with something beyond themselves, whether people, nature, or a higher power. Cicero proclaimed gratitude “the parent of all the other virtues.” And, it happens to come with important health benefits.
Studies have shown that writing down the things you’re grateful for not only makes you happier, but also makes it more likely you’ll exercise and less likely you’ll have to see a doctor. Writing a thank-you note to someone who hasn’t been properly thanked for something he did makes the note-writer happier not just in the moment, but for up to a month afterward! Expressing gratitude to another person also makes you feel more positive about that other person, and if that person happens to be your employee will make them more productive, to boot.
According to Neel Burton, M.D., writing in Psychology Today, “gratitude encourages and heightens life-enhancing states such as joy, tranquility, consciousness, enthusiasm, and empathy, while inhibiting painful emotions such as anxiety, heartbreak, loneliness, regret, and envy, with which it is fundamentally incompatible.”
So what can we do to cultivate gratitude? Writing a thank-you note to someone is a great start, especially when you can hand-deliver it. With New Year’s resolutions just around the corner, why not resolve to send one thank-you note a month, and maybe even one to yourself before year is out? Even if you don’t have time to write things down, just thinking grateful thoughts about someone is likely to make you happier.
And why wait for Thanksgiving to be thankful? Make a time each week to literally count your blessings, and consider writing them down in a “gratitude journal.” For those who have spiritual or religious beliefs, meditating or praying with a focus on gratitude can also be very helpful.
As for me, I’m thankful my family, some time off for the holidays, and the opportunity to write this column.
There, I feel better already!
Robert Macauley, MD, is the Medical Director of Clinical Ethics and a palliative medicine physician at the UVM Medical Center. He is also an associate professor at the University of Vermont College of Medicine.