The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

November 21, 2012

Gratitude is good for you

By Judy Rupp
Enid News & Eagle

— You know the story of the first Thanksgiving. Who had most reason to be thankful on that mythical day at Plymouth Rock in 1621?

Native American tribes have always had traditional rituals — dances and powwows — to express their deepest appreciation for the wonder of the harvest. Their visitors from across the sea had different rituals and different prayers, but no less thankfulness. It’s appropriate that these gestures of mutual gratitude, respect and friendship have become institutionalized as a national holiday.

No matter how big or small the harvest, we have a lot to be thankful for. And studies show that being thankful is good for your health.

Groundbreaking studies were done by psychologists such as Robert Emmons of the University of California Davis and Michael McCullough of the University of Miami. Emmons and McCullough performed a series of studies in 2003 later published in an academic book, “The Psychology of Gratitude” (Oxford University Press, 2004).

The first two studies involved healthy university students and the third focused on adults with various neuromuscular illnesses. Subjects in all of these studies were divided into three groups and asked to maintain a journal for varying lengths of time.

Group A recorded things for which they were grateful.

Group B recorded things that annoyed or irritated them.

Group C recorded things that had a major impact on their lives.

Over the short term, subjects in Group A clearly experienced higher levels of well being. Over a 10-week period, results showed significant social and physical benefits as well for subjects focused on gratitude.

Other studies, before and after, confirmed those results. Expressing gratitude is associated with significantly greater happiness, optimism, satisfaction with life and progress toward meeting life goals.

Showing that we don’t take others for granted has been proven an effective way of maintaining friendships and even forming new ones. One study of Big Sisters and Little Sisters in a college sorority found that pampering activities between the groups over a week was an effective way of establishing mutual gratitude and a strong long-term relationship.

As for physical health, studies have shown that grateful people tend to exercise more, sleep better, have fewer headaches, higher levels of energy and heightened immunity.

Putting all this into practice requires more than one day a year, but Thanksgiving, because of its traditions, may be a good place to start.

Count your blessings

Some families have established a Thanksgiving tradition of going around the table and having each person, one by one, tell something he or she is most thankful for. It might be: “I’m thankful that Aunt Betty made her pecan pie!” Or “I’m thankful that the family is all here together, safe and healthy after another year.”

Once those sentiments have been expressed, it becomes necessary to start searching for the little things that often go unnoticed, such as Charles’ untiring work washing up pots and pans after dinner.

Keep a gratitude journal

One day of gratitude is not enough, of course. The gratitude journal advocated by Dr. Emmons and other psychologists is a good way to start making thankfulness a larger part of your life.

Set aside some time every day for recording a certain number of things you are thankful for. Emmons and McCullough required five items each day, with one brief sentence for each.

It’s important to write regularly, and in order to do this it’s best to set aside a specific time–first thing in the morning, right after dinner, just before bedtime. And it’s important to meet your set quota each day, even if that’s difficult.

Simply put, it amounts to counting your blessings or looking at the sunny side of life. But it’s really more than that. As Emmons writes, “the act of writing allows you to see the meaning of events going on around you and create meaning in your own life.”

Gratitude means feeling good and expressing thanks toward anyone. Tell your fellow workers how much you appreciated their help covering for you on your day off. One sports columnist routinely thanks his audience for reading.

Eventually, all of this should start to have an effect on your life. “More than any other emotion, gratitude is the emotion of friendship,” writes Dr. McCullough. Our ancestors understood this in 1621; let us re-enact it again this year on the fourth Thursday in November ... and follow through the rest of the year.

Rupp is a certified information and referral specialist on aging for NODA Area Agency on Aging. Contact her at 237-2236.