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  • Rachel Schultz, B.S.

Is Thanksgiving Good For You? – Gratitude and Mental Health

Thanksgiving is right around the corner and I can’t help but wonder where the time has gone. For me, Thanksgiving is about spending time with family and remembering the things I’m thankful for – all while stuffing my face with mashed potatoes, turkey, and pecan pie. Your Thanksgiving may sound a bit different, especially if you have any odd family traditions in the food department (I’m talking to you, Jello salad!). Regardless of what your day looks like, you likely take a moment to think of the things you are thankful for. It is extremely important to be thankful, but not just on this one day out of the year. Frequently expressing gratitude has a tremendous positive impact on your emotions, brain, relationships, and physical health.

Positive psychology has been on the forefront of research involving gratitude and how it affects mental health. Gratitude is a thankful appreciation for what an individual receives, both tangible and intangible. Put very simply, it is the act of acknowledging the good things in life and when done so often it is associated with greater happiness. Expressing gratitude causes the brain to release serotonin and dopamine, two neurotransmitters involved in emotions. When an individual expresses gratitude often, it strengthens those neural pathways leading to permanent changes in the brain. These changes lead to long-lasting feelings of happiness and contentment. These individuals have been found to be more optimistic and feel better about their lives. Not only does it increase positive emotions, but it helps ward off the negative ones as well. By reducing the amount of the stress hormone, cortisol, gratitude reduces stress, anxiety, and depression. Gratitude also produces long-term change in the area of the brain responsible for negative emotions, making an individual more likely to be empathetic and positive minded.

Gratitude doesn’t only affect our happiness on a neurobiological level; it is connected with other areas, like interpersonal relationships. Relationships improve when individuals express gratitude toward their partner. They feel more positive toward their partner and more comfortable expressing concerns about the relationship. These couples also reported long-lasting happiness within the relationship.

Lastly, gratitude shows positive outcomes for our physical health. Grateful people report fewer aches and pains, and report feeling healthier compared to others. These people also get better sleep; gratitude activates the area of the brain responsible for sleep making it more likely to sleep better and wake up feeling well-rested. They have also been found to have better cardiac functioning due to the decrease in cortisol.

There are many different ways to cultivate gratitude. Keep a gratitude journal where you write down one thing you are thankful for each day. The first few days will be easy as you knock out the big things – friends, family, health, etc. – but you’ll soon begin to focus on the smaller, everyday things. Journaling allows you to reflect and focus on good memories opposed to the bad ones. Another way is through meditation or prayer, depending on your religious beliefs. You can also use gratitude to make others happy by giving someone a thank you note. These small, simple acts can have a large impact.

Let this Thanksgiving be the start of your continuous expression of gratitude.

Happy Thanksgiving from all of us at The Brain Center!

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