On Thursday, many Americans will celebrate the holiday of Thanksgiving. This holiday is a favorite of mine because I love to spend time with my family and I love turkey stuffing and apple pie. But it is also my favorite because our celebration involves pausing to give thanks for the many blessings in our lives.
Psychologists have been studying how experiencing and expressing gratitude leads to mental and physical health. Studies find that taking the time each day to express gratitude or to appreciate the good things in our lives is linked to health benefits, including better sleep, lowered stress response and lower blood pressure. From a mental health perspective, those who practice gratitude and appreciation often report higher levels of happiness, more optimism about the future and fewer symptoms of depression. Importantly, these benefits seem to depend on the gratitude of the individual, not on the objective quality of the person’s life.
In the past year, some have sounded notes of caution about the value of expressing gratitude. These critics worry that expressions of gratitude give ownership of one’s success to someone else, and are particularly concerned that women or members of marginalized groups in effect disempower themselves or create a dynamic of being beholden to others.
It is important to be aware of the social and political context of communicating thanks. But it is also important to recognize the key attribute of gratitude practice — which is to be in a state of appreciation. Framing life in a positive way often includes self-agency and a sense of control over what is good in life is important. While some gratitude interventions ask people to thank someone else specifically, many effective approaches simply ask people to appreciate or reflect on good things. Giving thanks does not have to be to a person — it can be to ourselves, it can be to a spiritual or religious power, or it can simply be a general state of appreciation.
This practice plays out at Bryn Mawr College, the women’s college where I teach and serve as president. We encourage practicing gratitude as part of our first-year seminar. For a week during the course, students are encouraged to keep a gratitude journal, writing down and reflecting upon three good things that happened to them each day. I give my students a similar opportunity in my educational psychology class during the section on positive psychology.
Most students who participate in this exercise say that this small habit prompts them to remember the good things rather than dwell on the negative. It allows them to better understand and seek out what brings them joy going forward, encourages them to share their good news with others and gives them a positive outlook for the future. We hope that by introducing them to this daily habit, they will continue to use it to support their health and growth throughout their time at college and beyond.
Some have argued that the effects of gratitude interventions are small or no greater than other kinds of mental health interventions, but this isn’t a deterrent to engaging in the practice of gratitude. Taking a few moments each day to appreciate the good things in our lives is a tiny investment in light of the mental and physical benefits it reaps. So if you celebrate Thanksgiving, and it is your practice to give thanks, the good feeling that you get could be more than the pleasure of the good food and the good company.