Monday Mornings with Madison

THANKFULNESS: THE PRESCRIPTION FOR HEALTH, SUCCESS AND HAPPINESS

For most people, Thanksgiving Day is a day to gather with friends and loved ones to eat, drink, be merry, watch football, prepare to do some intense shopping… oh, that’s right, and give thanks.  The tradition dates back to 1623, and the first official National Thanksgiving Proclamation was signed by Congress on November 1, 1777.  At that time, little was known about the actual benefits of thankfulness.  Giving thanks was done as a spiritual act.  Today, thankfulness is thought of as a gesture of politeness or a way to affirm others.  Saying thanks is seen as something done for someone else.  However, it turns out that there are also tangible, measurable benefits derived from the act of being grateful for the person giving thanks.  If you want to be healthier, more successful and happier, simply be more thankful

According to the research, being grateful every day is good for the body, mind and soul.  An attitude of gratitude has been proven to increase emotional health, improve the well being of romantic relationships, and raise an individual’s level of happiness.  It also enhances career success by improving a person’s goal achievement.  Can the seemingly one-way act of ‘being grateful’ really deliver that kind of return?  Is it really that simple?  Simple:  yes.  But, as it turns out, it may not necessarily be easy.

The Power of Gratitude

Dr. Robert Emmons, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis and a leading authority on the topic of gratitude in North America, is convinced in the power of gratitude.  After eight years of intensive research on gratitude, Emmons describes the effect of gratitude on people in his book, “Thanks! How The New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier.”  In his research, he found that people who view life as a gift and consciously acquire an “attitude of gratitude” experience multiple advantages. Gratitude improves physical, emotional and relationship health.  Without gratitude, life can be lonely, depressing and impoverished.  But, through gratitude, a person can be elevated, energized, inspired and transformed.  Expressions of gratitude serve to move, open and humble individuals.  Thankfulness can also improve a person’s energy level and how they deal with tragedy and crisis.  A person with an attitude of gratitude is less envious, greedy and less likely to be an alcoholic.  Grateful people earn more money, sleep more soundly, exercise more regularly and have greater resistance to viral infections.   According to Anthony Robbins, a global authority on Leadership Psychology, “When you are grateful, fear disappears and abundance appears.”  If this sounds like a lot of psycho-babble, consider the evidence.

1.  Gratitude improves emotional health. 

In one study done by researcher Philip Watkins, a clinical psychologist at Eastern Washington University, feelings of gratitude were demonstrated to be beneficial to emotional well-being.  Watkins had participants test a number of different gratitude exercises, such as thinking about a living person for whom they were grateful, writing about someone for whom they were grateful, and writing a letter to deliver to someone for whom they were grateful. Participants in the control condition were asked to describe their living room, an exercise that had nothing to do with gratitude. Participant who engaged in a gratitude exercise showed increases in their experiences of positive emotion immediately after the exercise, and this effect was strongest for participants who were asked to think about a person for whom they were grateful. Participants who had grateful personalities to begin with showed the greatest benefit from the gratitude exercises.

Several studies have shown depression to be strongly inversely related to gratitude. The more grateful a person is, the less depressed they are. The more depressed, the less likely they are to feel thankful for life.  Watkins conducted another study in which it was found that clinically depressed individuals showed significantly lower gratitude levels (nearly 50% less) than non-depressed controls.  One reason could be that people who are grateful tend to show a positive recall bias (the ability to conjure many more pleasant memories than unpleasant ones) when asked about past life events, just as depressed individuals show a negative recall bias when asked about past life events.

2.  Gratitude helps marriages. 

Dr. John Gottman at the University of Washington, who has done research marriages for two decades, found that the bottom line of all his research is that a couple must maintain a high ratio of positive to negative encounters (5:1 or greater), in order for a marriage to survive.  Relationships with less than that are likely to end.  With 90 percent accuracy, Gottman was able to predict, often after only three minutes of observation, which marriages were likely to flourish and which would probably flounder. The formula was that for every negative expression (a complaint, frown, put-down, expression of anger) there needed to be about five positive ones (smiles, compliments, laughter). What did Gottman find to be the best way to reach that 5:1 positivity ratio? No surprise. Gottman suggested practicing gratitude in marriage and having a goal of expressing at least five blessings for every one complaint.  Marriages that achieved that ratio of thankfulness to complaints flourished.

3.  Thankfulness improves physical health.

Scientific research also shows that gratitude is not just a positive emotion.  It can actually improve a person’s physical health when cultivated.   For example, gratitude helps combat stress.  Stress is linked to several leading causes of death including heart disease and cancer and which claims responsibility for up to 90% of all doctor visits. Gratitude research suggests that feelings of thankfulness have tremendous positive value in helping people cope with daily problems, especially stress.  Gratitude also boosts the immune system. In one study, researchers compared the immune systems of healthy, first-year law students under stress.  They found that, by midterm, students characterized as optimistic and thankful (based on survey responses) maintained higher numbers of blood cells that protect the immune system, compared with their more pessimistic classmates. 

Thankfulness has also been found to have a positive health impact on people with compromised health.  In separate studies, patients confronting AIDS, as well as those preparing to undergo surgery, had better health outcomes when they maintained attitudes of gratitude and optimism.  University of Connecticut psychologist Glen Affleck’s research showed that the attitude a person has for why he or she had a heart attack impacted future cardiac health.  Affleck and his colleagues at the Department of Community Medicine and Health Care found that cardiac patients who blamed their heart attacks on others were more likely to suffer another heart attack within eight years. However, those who perceived benefits and gains from an initial heart attack, including becoming more appreciative of life, were found to have a reduced risk for subsequent attack.  

The benefit of gratitude also extended even to people who had heart transplants. In another study at the University of Pittsburgh, it was found that “thankfulness and appreciation as an aspect of religious faith” was positively related to their perceived physical and mental health of 119 heart transplant patients at one year post-transplant. Thankfulness also was predictive of greater compliance with the medical regimen and of fewer difficulties with diet and medications.

Another study on gratitude was conducted with adults having congenital and adult-onset neuromuscular disorders (NMDs), with the majority having post-polio disease (PPS).

Compared to those who were not jotting down their blessings nightly, participants in the gratitude condition reported more hours of sleep each night, spending less time awake before falling asleep, and feeling more refreshed upon awakening.  The gratitude group also reported more satisfaction with their lives as a whole, felt more optimism about the upcoming week, and felt considerably more connected with others than did participants in the control condition.  But the participants weren’t the only ones believing life was better. According to the researchers, the spouses of the participants in the gratitude condition reported that the participants appeared to have higher subjective well-being than did the spouses of the participants in the control condition.

4.  Thankfulness also benefits children.

Researchers also find that gratitude brings similar benefits in children and adolescents.  Jeffrey J. Froh, an assistant professor of psychology at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., who has conducted much of the research with children, found that kids who feel and act grateful tend to be less materialistic, get better grades, and set higher goals.  Dr. Froh and colleagues surveyed 1,035 high-school students and found that the most grateful kids had more friends and higher GPAs, while the most materialistic had lower grades, higher levels of envy and less satisfaction with life.  He found that one of the best cures for materialism is to make somebody grateful for what they have.  Thankful children also complain of fewer headaches and stomach aches and feel more satisfied with their friends, families and schools than those who don’t. 

Strategies for Being Thankful Everyday
There are many, many more studies being done on the power of gratitude on physical and mental well-being…. too many to cite here.   But, if having an attitude of gratitude is so beneficial, why don’t more people embrace a spirit of thankfulness?  Emmons admits that cultivating an attitude of gratitude can be difficult and it may be more difficult for some than others.   Experts believe that about 50% of such temperament is genetic, but the rest comes from experience, so there’s ample opportunity for change.  It is a “chosen attitude.”  What is the key to being more grateful?  It is a willingness to recognize and acknowledge that each person is the recipient of an unearned benefit.  A person must give up a “victim mentality” and overcome a sense of entitlement and deservedness.   How does one cultivate this attitude of gratitude?  Here are some simple strategies:

Begin the day with gratitude.

In “A Daily Dose of Awe and Gratitude” (Positive Psychology News Daily, March 3, 2007), David Pollay describes a process of beginning each day with a few moments spent in awe of something beautiful or fascinating, and feeling gratitude for the experience.

Learn and recite prayers of gratitude.

Instead of asking for things, spend time in prayer simply giving thanks for what you already have.  For those having a particularly hard time identifying things for which to be thankful, try focusing on the senses.  Count bodily related blessings: being able to see, hear, speak, walk, eat, think, etc.

Express gratitude at work.

In “Taking Positive Psychology to Work: The Role of Gratitude” published in Positive Psychology News Daily, NY, Kathryn Britton gives six suggestions for improving happiness at work.

  1. Pay attention to good things
  2. Pay attention to bad things avoided
  3. Practice downward comparisons
  4. Establish gratitude times
  5. Be grateful for what you haven’t lost
  6. Elicit gratitude around you

Keep a gratitude journal.

Researchers randomly divided more than 100 undergraduate students into three groups. One group was asked to list five things they were grateful for during the past week.  The second group listed five things that annoyed them that week and the third group simply listed five events that had occurred. They also completed detailed questionnaires about their physical and mental health before, during and after. They did the exercise for 10 consecutive weeks.  Those who listed blessings each week had fewer health complaints, exercised more regularly and felt better about their lives in general than the other two groups.  The results showed another benefit.  Participants in the gratitude condition also reported offering others more emotional support or help with a personal problem, indicating that the gratitude condition made people more willing to help others.

Use visual reminders to be thankful.
Place pictures of loved ones or scenes of nature around you to remind you of the many non-material things you have for which to be thankful.

Given all the personal benefits gained from being grateful, it makes sense to be thankful even if for no other reason than as a way to help yourself.  Ask these questions.  What am I grateful for? What do I appreciate about the things I already have in my life? What do I love most about the people around me? When was the last time I said thank you?  Adopt an attitude of gratitude and it may be that you’ll have even more health, happiness and success for which to be thankful.

Quote of the Week

“He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has.” Epictetus 

© 2011 – 2012, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.

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