Thanksgiving, Gratitude, and Mental Health

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Gratitude can help people to become more social and develop deeper and healthier relationships, which in turn can improve their emotional health.
Gratitude can help people to become more social and develop deeper and healthier relationships, which in turn can improve their emotional health.

As we approach Thanksgiving, a widely celebrated day dedicated to remembering and acknowledging the goodness in our lives, we should stop to reflect on how this process of giving thanks for our blessings can positively impact the lives of our patients.

Over the last decade, there has been an increase in research dedicated to better understanding the effects of gratitude on health and relationships — and the results are astonishing. The simple act of expressing gratitude on a consistent basis has been shown to positively impact key areas in a person's life including: relationships and connectedness, emotional well-being, and physical health.  

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First, gratitude helps people connect to something larger than themselves as individuals whether to other people, nature, or a higher power. In the process of expressing a thankful appreciation for those tangible and intangible things received, very often people usually recognize that the source of that goodness lies at least partially outside of themselves.

And as a result, gratitude can help people to become more social and develop deeper and healthier relationships, which in turn can improve their emotional health. In fact, positive social experiences and higher levels of social integration and support are associated with improved coping ability in all ages.1

Furthermore, gratitude can foster spirituality: Transcendence and openness to exploring a relationship with a higher power or value, which oftentimes, involves both a process of deriving meaning, purpose, and direction in one's life. And the bulk of the literature on spirituality and mental health suggests that the relationship between the two is a positive one; from decreasing depression and anxiety to helping people cope with substance abuse.2,3,4 

Also, gratitude can improve a person's emotional well-being. Robert A. Emmons, PhD, of the University of California, Davis, has done much of the research on gratitude. He suggests four significant areas where gratitude can have a positive effect on emotion.

First, gratitude magnifies positive emotions by helping us to appreciate the value in something; thus gaining more benefit from it.  Second, it blocks toxic, negative emotions, such as envy, resentment, and regret — emotions that can destroy happiness. Third, gratitude fosters resiliency. And lastly, gratitude promotes self worth. 

Lastly, gratitude can have positive effects on physical health. There is robust literature suggesting that gratitude can make us healthier.  Studies suggest that people who express gratitude often have fewer physical symptoms, less pain, and more energy and vitality.  Also, grateful people tend to be more likely to participate in activities that promote physical health such as exercise and regular routine doctor visits.5

It was wordsmith William Author Ward who said, “Gratitude can transform common days into thanksgivings, routine jobs into joys, and ordinary opportunities into blessings.” Helping our patients understand how gratitude could improve their lives may give them a deeper appreciation for what it truly means to celebrate Thanksgiving, and hopefully encourage them to carry a sense of thankfulness and gratitude throughout the remainder of the year.

Melissa Vallas, MD, is lead psychiatrist at Children's System of Care, Alameda County (California) Behavioral Health Care Services Agency.

References

  1. Seeman TE. Social Relationships, Gender, and Allostatic Load Across Two Age Cohorts. Psychosomatic Medicine. 2002; 64(3): 395-406.
  2. Margetic B. Religiosity and health outcomes: review of literature. Coll Antropol. 2005; 29 (1): 365-371.
  3. Hodges S. Mental Health, Depression, and Dimensions of Spirituality and Religion. Journal of Adult Development. 2002; 9(2): 109-115.
  4. Kirkwood G, et al. Yoga for anxiety: a systematic review of the research evidence: Br J Sports Med. 2005; 39(12): 884-891.
  5. Emmons RA and McCullough M E. Counting blessings versus burdens: An experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 2003; 84(2): 377-389.
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