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December 23, 2015

Saying 'thanks' has profound benefits on your health

Giving gifts, expressing gratitude to loved ones can improve your well-being, research shows

With the chaos of the holiday season in full swing, many of us are eagerly anticipating the moment where we can finally put our feet up and relax – perhaps next to a roaring fire, with a mug of hot chocolate or mulled wine, reflecting on another year passed. The holidays tend to be a period when stress runs at its highest, thanks to frantic last-minute gift shopping, mind-numbing travel delays, and those unfortunate year-end deadlines at work.

But the end of the year can also be a good time to take a breather, embrace the holiday spirit, and express gratitude to those around you – through gift-giving, naturally, but also in other, medically-verified ways. Studies have found that exercises involving gratitude, such as writing letters of thanks to loved ones or keeping a blessings journal, can improve well-being, lower cholesterol levels, and help curb depression and anxiety.

In other words, expressing thanks to loved ones not only makes them feel warm and fuzzy inside, but you as the giver reap a number of mental and physical health benefits as well.

“Gratitude is not only good for the receiver, it's also good for the sender, and it changes the relationship,” said Ross Brinkert, an associate professor of corporate communication at Penn State Abington who specializes in gratitude communication. “That's pretty interesting – the idea that you can transform your own feelings by sending gratitude to somebody else.”

Gratitude has become a popular topic of research in positive psychology, a field that focuses on positive emotions like happiness, strength of character, and optimism. For instance, researchers have found that the most satisfied people tend to pursue pleasure, meaning and engagement simultaneously within their lives rather than focusing on only one. A primary aim of positive psychology is to find evidence-based interventions that can create long-lasting happiness and satisfaction.

Many studies have focused on gratitude interventions because of their simplicity and enduring effects. People who practice gratitude consistently report having stronger immune systems, feel less lonely or isolated, and sleep better at night. Why does the act of expressing thanks – something we've been taught to do since we were children, often out of obligation more than anything else – have such profound benefits?

David Yaden, a research fellow at The University of Pennsylvania's Positive Psychology Center, points to a theory of positive emotions in general called Broaden-and-Build. Positive emotions like gratitude broaden our attention outwards, rather than inwards as negative emotions do, and allow us to see more possibilities. For instance, we're more creative after a positive emotion than a negative one.

“Evolutionarily, our selves are of great concern and primary importance, and so it makes good sense that we would worry a lot about our social and physical selves. But it's easy to go overboard, and too much self-focus can have negative outcomes,” said Yaden. “In depression, there's a lot of self-focus and rumination, and so when we're able to turn our attention outside of ourselves through positive emotions like gratitude, we're able to minimize the negative effects of self-focus.”

Through this broadening of our horizons, positive emotions help us build up our personal resources, such as psychological resiliency and close relationships with other people.

(Eskemar / iStock)


So what are some proven ways to use gratitude throughout our everyday lives and improve your health in the process? Brinkert, who researches effective ways to communicate gratitude in the workplace, believes the element of surprise can help an expression of thanks stand out.

“Expressions that come unexpectedly actually have a lot more weight than things that are expected,” Brinkert said. “A present that you get as a total surprise will actually have more meaning to you versus a present that you get on your birthday or Christmas. It's really important to make the opportunity to thoughtfully surprise people because that really stands out for them.”

As another example, a hand-written letter or hard-copy card versus an email may instantly have more significance attached to it because of the rare form of medium. Or Brinkert also notes that a bold, artistic, or personal creation can be a very memorable experience for the receiver – for instance, mailing a coconut or potato postcard, a huge cardboard cut-out of your loved one's favorite actor, or a hand-knit scarf.

“By expressing gratitude, we often broaden a relationship from being purely transactional and narrow to a more human level,” he said. “We're so busy with handling the day-to-day tasks and goals of our lives that we lose sight of how we interact with one another. I think gratitude opens that up for us and gives us a fresh perspective on things. ”

Yaden suggests the following three practical interventions to impart more gratitude into everyday life, all of which have been verified by research in positive psychology:

Three Good Things: At the end of each day, write down three good things that happened to you – and why they happened – for a week. People who practice this exercise end up experiencing increased happiness and reduced depressive symptoms for six months. “We have something called the negative bias, which is that we naturally pay more attention to negative memories, present appraisals, and worries about the future,” Yaden said. “We're scanning for potential threats, so it makes sense, but that doesn't feel great, and it can have negative side effects.” This exercise can help counteract that negative bias and provides an outlet to pay attention to the positive in life.

Gratitude Visit: Think about someone in your life who means a lot to you or has been especially kind to you, and has never been properly thanked. Write and hand-deliver a letter of gratitude to this person, and have a discussion about it afterwards. Both people can benefit from this interaction, and people have described the experience of sharing as very meaningful. This exercise caused large positive changes in participants – a boost in happiness and a decrease in depressive symptoms, even more so than seen after Three Good Things – but for only one month.

Loving-Kindness Meditation: Originally a Buddhist meditation, this technique is related to mindfulness meditation but includes an emotional and social component. Go through a series of visualizations, starting with someone in your life who is easy to love – perhaps a grandparent, best friend or partner. Then apply those positive feelings toward people who are more difficult to love, such as coworkers, a boss, or estranged relatives, and so on. In one study, participants who took a seven-week workplace meditation workshop experienced increases in daily experiences of positive emotions, overall life satisfaction, and social support. The workshop was also linked to reduced symptoms of illness and depression.