Thanksgiving is more than turkey: The biblical notion of gratitude has proven health benefits

Approximately 2,000 years ago the Apostle Paul encouraged a fledgling church to “give thanks in every situation.” Even earlier than that, a Jewish king explained that “a joyful heart is good…

Approximately 2,000 years ago the Apostle Paul encouraged a fledgling church to “give thanks in every situation.” Even earlier than that, a Jewish king explained that “a joyful heart is good medicine, but a broken spirit dries up the bones.” Thankfulness and gratitude can be found throughout Scripture.

Recent research also shows that a consistent attitude of gratitude and joy can provide significant physiological, social, and mental benefits.

The findings apply to both adults and children, suggesting you’re never too young (or old) to begin!

1. Gratitude can increase our overall life satisfaction.

Over a four-year period, researchers surveyed hundreds of young students to see the role that gratitude played in their development. They concluded that increases in gratitude contributed greatly to improvements in life satisfaction, positive attitudes, hope and happiness.

For example, the most grateful respondents had increased their sense of meaning in their lives by 15 percent and reported 15 percent more life satisfaction than others surveyed.

More good news: even students who didn’t initially report high levels of gratefulness in the survey still benefited from developing habits of “gratitude growth” over the four-year period!

Researchers found students who grew in this area reported the same improvements in well-being as the most grateful students. In addition, they were more likely to show decreased negative behavior in areas such as alcohol and drug use, skipping school, cheating on exams, and detention.

2. Gratitude can make us more generous and less materialistic.

In a survey of almost 1,000 adolescents, researchers concluded that an attitude of thankfulness helps reduce materialism and foster generosity. The more thankful the children and adolescents were, the fewer materialistic tendencies they showed.

This finding didn’t rest on people’s natural dispositions or personality traits. The same results happened during an experiment the researchers conducted, suggesting that gratitude could be learned and developed. In the experiment, adolescents who kept a gratitude journal were found to donate 60 percent more of their earnings to charity, compared to those who did not!

3. Gratitude can help us sleep better.

Having trouble sleeping at night? You’ve probably heard already about turning off phones and other portable electronic devices that can interfere with our ability to get sufficient rest.

However, instead of lying awake and thinking of all the time you’re wasting, you could try a more old-fashioned activity: writing in a journal.

According to a study, this simple act can help you use those last few minutes before bed to think of a few experiences, things or people you’re thankful for. Even 15 minutes of this activity can lead to better and longer sleep.

4. Gratitude can help protect against heart disease.

To return to Proverbs 17:22: a joyful heart can indeed act like medicine – in practical, preventative ways!

Research cited in the Harvard Health blog suggests that people with high senses of well-being and optimism have a lower risk of suffering from heart disease, heart attacks, and strokes.

Even people who already have cardiovascular disease can benefit from practicing gratitude in their daily lives.

The blog post followed one US Health and Retirement study that surveyed participants with known stable heart disease. Even in this population, the study found that positive traits associated with significantly lower heart attack risks included a positive outlook, life purpose, and optimism or gratitude.

5. Gratitude can strengthen our social relationships.

Analysts have concluded that the more gratitude we experience, the likelier we are to help others.

In a review of 91 research studies, researchers studied gratitude and its connections to pro-social behavior. They found that it didn’t matter whether we experienced kindness from a stranger or from someone we already knew well – our response of feeling grateful and engaging in reciprocal behavior was just as strong, no matter who initiated it.

The researchers also concluded that experiencing an act of direct generosity was more likely to strengthen our feelings of gratitude, as opposed to recalling and writing about a time when we felt grateful.

In other words, remembering past situations or people can help us feel a measure of gratitude – but experiencing an act of kindness in real time can help even more!

6. Gratitude can help reduce anxiety, especially in youth.

Anxiety often stems from multiple factors, including stress, repetitive negative thinking, and social isolation. However, practicing gratitude addresses many of these factors by helping us understand ourselves better (including our own limitations) and strengthen our relationships with people around us.

One article tells of the connection between grateful people developing a greater sense of self-compassion and self-understanding when responding to life’s frustrations and setbacks. This can help them develop greater emotional resiliency, helping reduce negative self-talk and an overly critical view of their performance.

The article also recommends that children learn to practice thankfulness early, such as a school-based gratitude diary, for greater life satisfaction. “By encouraging gratitude at a young age,” it concludes, “anxiety especially in teenage years may be lessened in this way.”

7. Gratitude can help us break free from negative emotions.

Something as simple as writing notes of thanks can result in significantly better mental health not only for well-adjusted individuals, but also those who are struggling with depression and anxiety.

A study from the University of California, Berkley tracked the progress of approximately 300 adults who were seeking counseling services. During the study, the adults were divided into three groups.

The first group wrote letters of gratitude to another person once a week for three weeks. The second group wrote about their thoughts and feelings regarding negative experiences. The third group had no writing assignments.

After four weeks, the first group reported significantly better mental health than the other groups. Researchers peeked into some of the mechanisms that may have caused this result.

It turns out that the content of the writing matters. People who just used words of positive emotion didn’t necessarily enjoy better mental health, researchers found. The people who benefited most used fewer words of negative emotion in their overall writing.

The study’s results caused researchers to hypothesize that when we focus on gratitude, our attention shifts from remembering our negative experiences and leaves more room for positive memories. Thus, an attitude of thanksgiving can help us overcome toxic emotions such as resentment or envy.

“When you write about how grateful you are to others and how much other people have blessed your life,” researchers wrote, “it might become considerably harder for you to ruminate on your negative experiences.”

This Thanksgiving, try using the holiday as a springboard to encourage your children in cultivating habits of gratitude. After all, science suggests that this will contribute greatly to their overall physical and mental health…just as the Bible recommended so many years ago!