The key to a happy life? Gratitude that goes beyond Thanksgiving

The importance of gratitude goes beyond a picture-perfect Thanksgiving tableau.

Many experts believe that feeling grateful is also beneficial to your health.

“Gratitude is good medicine,” says Robert A. Emmons, professor of psychology at UC Davis and founding editor in chief of the Journal of Positive Psychology. Studies show that practicing gratitude can be used to help lower blood pressure, stop smoking and reduce stress.

Here are 10 reasons why it’s beneficial to cultivate an attitude of gratitude year round, not just at Thanksgiving:

1. Gratitude empowers you

“If we’re so depressed about what’s going on in the world that we can’t act, what does that serve? So part of what we’re trying to do is keep people connected to gratefulness as a source of activism,” says Kristi Nelson, executive director of gratefulness.org, which describes itself as an online sanctuary dedicated to fostering grateful living. “It’s really powerful to steep ourselves in what we’re grateful for and then act to defend, protect and advance that in the world.”

2. Helps fight addiction

“There’s a lot of belief that addictions come out of spiritual thirst,” says Nelson, citing a principle of 12-step programs. Gratitude can help you positively reframe not just the present but the past and future. “We have seen people have tremendous breakthroughs in valuing their lives and each other and life itself as a result of focusing on what they have to feel grateful for versus what’s missing in their lives.”

3. Combats the Facebook blues

“In a consumer culture, we’re driven to see what we don’t have, and Facebook, social media, is only making it worse,” Nelson says. “It can feel like we’re all living in some kind of substandard world, that something should be different. That’s a form of suffering as opposed to seeing [that life itself is] a gift.”

4. Boosts self-control

Gratitude makes people more patient,” says Jeffrey Froh, an associate professor at Hofstra University, referencing the ability to delay gratification. “Future rewards are generally less attractive, but if you’re in a grateful mood you’re more able to wait. If you’re sad or depressed you just want to feel better in the moment, so you eat that whole cheesecake” instead of skipping dessert in favor of your weight-loss goals.

5. Helps you sleep better

Instead of counting sheep, try counting your blessings. “There are about six good studies now showing that gratitude facilitates better sleep,” Emmons says. Almost every benchmark of good sleep — including duration of sleep and the time it takes to fall asleep — is improved by gratitude.

6. Fosters a sense of community

“The thread of life can unravel very quickly, so we need memories of how we’ve been supported and sustained by other people,” Emmons says. For instance, if a hospital took good care of your spouse, you may be motivated to donate money to help build a new cancer wing. “So much of life is about giving, receiving, repaying benefits; that’s why gratitude is so foundational and fundamental to human beings and to social life. … It’s a cycle of reciprocity.”

7. Helps fend off depression

Practicing gratitude is linked to more resilience and optimism, Emmons says, recalling one study that found that counting blessings and “gratitude letter writing” reduced the risk of depression in patients by 41% over six months.

8. Makes you a better spouse

Rather than focusing on “negative attributions” or what you don’t like about your mate, “Focus on what your partner is good at,” Emmons says. With any luck, that praise and affirmation might inspire him or her to improve other aspects of the relationship.

9. Makes you a better boss and manager

Managers who express gratitude have more productive employees. In turn, “Grateful employees are better employees. They’re more engaged … more efficient,” Emmons says.

10. Increases life satisfaction for kids

“The way you couch it to kids is: Be on the hunt for the good,” Froh says. “Kids who are grateful have better relationships growing up, increased happiness and life satisfaction, more emotional and social support, get higher grades, do better in school, are less envious and less materialistic.”

Here are a few resources to help you get started on your gratitude journey:

--Gratefulness.org, which was co-founded by Catholic Benedictine monk David Steindl-Rast, now 91

--The popular TED talk “Want to be happy? Be grateful,” also by Steindl-Rast

--The Ted.com gratitude playlist

--The Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley and its Greater Good magazine

--“Thanks! How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier” by Robert A. Emmons, professor of psychology at UC Davis

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