|Thank You. No, Thank You
Grateful People Are Happier, Healthier Long After the Leftovers Are Gobbled Up
By MELINDA BECK
Wall Street Journal
November 23 2010
IT TURNS OUT, GIVING thanks is good for your health.
A growing body of research suggests that maintaining an attitude of gratitude can improve psychological, emotional and physical well-being.
Adults who frequently feel grateful have more energy, more optimism, more social connections and more happiness than those who do not, according to studies conducted over the past decade. They're also less likely to be depressed, envious, greedy or alcoholics. They earn more money, sleep more soundly, exercise more regularly and have greater resistance to viral infections.
Now, researchers are finding that gratitude brings similar benefits in children and adolescents. Kids who feel and act grateful tend to be less materialistic, get better grades, set higher goals, complain of fewer headaches and stomach aches and feel more satisfied with their friends, families and schools than those who don't, studies show.
Being grateful also forces people to overcome what psychologists call the "negativity bias"—the innate tendency to dwell on problems, annoyances and injustices rather than upbeat events. Focusing on blessings can help ward off depression and build resilience in times of stress, grief or disasters, according to studies of people impacted by the Sept. 11 terror attacks and Hurricane Katrina.
Can people learn to look on the bright side, want what they have and be grateful for it? Experts believe that about 50% of such temperament is genetic, but the rest comes from experience, so there's ample opportunity for change. "Kids and adults both can choose how they feel and how they look at the world," says Andrew Greene, principal of Candlewood Middle School, who says that realization was one of the lasting legacies of Dr. Froh's research there.
For older children and adults, one simple way to cultivate gratitude is to literally count your blessings. Keep a journal and regularly record whatever you are grateful for that day….Some people do this on their Facebook or MySpace pages, or in one of dozens of online gratitude groups. There's an iPod app for gratitude journaling, too. The real benefit comes in changing how you experience the world. Look for things to be grateful for, and you'll start seeing them everywhere.
A Buddhist exercise, called Naikan self-reflection, asks people to ponder daily: "What have I received from…? What have I given to…? and What trouble have I caused…?" Acknowledging those who touched your life—from the barista who made your coffee to the engineer who drove your train—and reflecting on how you reciprocated reinforces humbleness and interdependence.
Delivering your thanks in person can be particularly powerful. One study found that fourth-graders who took a "gratitude visit" felt better about themselves even two months later—particularly those whose moods were previously low.
Studies show that using negative, derogatory words—even as you talk to yourself—can darken your mood as well. Fill your head with positive thoughts, express thanks and encouragement aloud and look for something to be grateful for, not criticize, in those around you, especially loved ones. New York psychiatrist Drew Ramsey says that's an essential tool for surviving the holidays. "Giving thanks for them helps you deal with the craziness that is part of every family," he says.
Last, if you find you take too much for granted, try the "It's a Wonderful Life" approach: image what life would be like without a major blessing, like a spouse, a child or a job. In a 2008 study in the Journal of Personal Social Psychology, researchers found that when college students wrote essays in which they were asked to "mentally subtract" a positive event from their lives, they were subsequently more grateful for it than students whose essays simply focused on the event. The "George Bailey effect" was modest, the authors noted, but even small boosts in positive emotions can make life more satisfying.