We may not celebrate Thanksgiving in South Africa, but in the US this annual family holiday embodies the concept of gratitude. Being grateful is good if you are stressed or depressed and, as we discovered, it benefits your health too.
Life in the developed world is certainly fast-paced and competitive, and it’s filled with people who are stressed and suffer with depression. Our lives, our jobs and their challenges take a toll on our mental and physical health. Why is it, then, that some people seem always to be happy and motivated? What is their secret? How do they manage to negotiate negative situations so smoothly and emerge with their spirits intact?
Studies show that the answer to stress, depression and the ailments that accompany them, including heart disease, may be simpler than we think. The solution, researchers suggest, is practising gratitude. And it’s a practice that has been encouraged throughout history, with philosophers and religious leaders extolling gratitude as playing a vital role in health and wellbeing. Modern mental health professionals are investigating the effects on body health of ‘positive psychology’. So far, results are promising. It appears that people who regularly give thanks are generally healthier than their more negative counterparts. According to psychology professor Robert Emmons at the University of California at Davis, choosing positive psychology and a permanent ‘attitude of gratitude’ can have beneficial effects on your life and the lives of those around you.
Emmons’ findings, along with those of other researchers such as Lisa Aspinwall, a psychology professor at the University of Utah, suggest that people who try harder to view situations in a positive and grateful way are more likely to:
- Experience fewer ‘dark’ periods of depression. Gratitude makes you feel happier, more optimistic and maintain a brighter view of the future. Thankfulness has also been linked to lower occurrences of certain addictions.
- Take better care of themselves, both mentally and physically. When you’re down in the dumps, the thought of loafing on the couch in front of the TV seems far more attractive than any form of exercise. Grateful people are more likely to get physical, eat healthily and schedule regular health check-ups.
- Be more alert mentally and cope better with stress and daily challenges. When stress becomes too much for us to handle, it can trigger conditions such as depression, heart disease and even cancer. According to Emmons, stress is the main reason we go to our doctors. ‘Gratitude research is beginning to suggest that feelings of thankfulness have tremendous positive value in helping people cope with daily problems, especially stress,’ he says. Optimistic people sleep better too.
- Have a stronger immune system. ‘There are interesting studies linking optimism to better immune function,’ says Lisa Aspinwall. In one, researchers comparing the immune systems of healthy, first-year law students under stress found that, by midterm, students who had been classified as optimistic in a survey ‘maintained higher numbers of blood cells that protect the immune system’ than their less positive classmates. It’s also said that patients who adopt a positive attitude when undergoing surgery or treatment for serious illness have better chances of recovery.
- Inspire a ‘pass it on’ attitude in others. Studies show that people who spend time with upbeat, thankful colleagues are more likely to share their uplifted spirits with others.
- Have healthier, more satisfying relationships.
How to practise gratitude
Your attitude plays a large role in determining whether you can feel grateful in the face of life’s challenges. Emmons notes that gratitude is defined by your attitude toward both the outside world and yourself. He suggests that people who are more aware of the positives in their lives tend to focus their attention outside of themselves. Of course, asking you to practise thankfulness is tough if gratitude isn’t a natural characteristic in your personality.
Here are some attitude-changing suggestions:
1. Say thank you for what you have.
You may assume that people with more material possessions have more to be grateful for. That’s simply not true. Wealthy people are just as prone to depression and stress as everyone else. According to Edward Diener, a psychology professor at the University of Illinois, a high percentage of affluent people in the US and Japan claim that they are not satisfied with their lives, just as those living in poverty in India do. It’s not how much you have; it’s how you feel about what you have that makes the difference.
2. Change the way you look at life events
The old adage ‘When life hands you lemons, make lemonade’ couldn’t be truer. When life becomes challenging, it’s not actually the situation that is upsetting, but how you perceive it. Don’t lose your rag in traffic jams; instead, play some music and take the time to enjoy the slower pace. Instead of complaining about life’s hassles, try to mentally ‘flip the switch’ to frame things differently.
3. Keep a gratitude journal.
Emmons found that people who made weekly or, even better, daily notes about what they felt grateful for reported fewer health problems and greater optimism than those who didn’t. Alternatively, perform random acts of kindness, such as preparing a meal for a sick neighbour or taking the time to visit the local children’s hospital.
So, make practising thankfulness a regular part of your life. You’ll feel the positive effects on your mental and physical health and on the wellbeing of the people around you.