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The health benefits of gratitude (beyond Thanksgiving)

Does Thanksgiving get lost in the Christmas shuffle? Could daily gratitude actually make us healthier?

Thanksgiving is over.  Now what?  Where does all that gratefulness go?  Do we just move on and dive right into Christmas shopping?

I once overheard this comment on a bus in New York City on Thanksgiving Day:  “There should be 364 days a year of thanks-giving and one day for griping.”  What a wonderful idea!

With each passing year, it seems that Thanksgiving, the holiday, faces stronger and ever earlier competition from Christmas and the consumerism that is so aggressively urged on us.  Don’t get me wrong, I love the true meaning of Christmas.  But when two of my local radio stations start playing only Christmas music starting November 1st!, gratitude tends to get drown out.

Giving thanks needn’t be relegated to just a day or even a season.  We can do it every day.  In addition to having us identify the good in our lives, which can help ward off the depression that we hear is more prevalent at this time of year; gratitude is healthy in other ways.

In fact the health-giving effect of acknowledging our blessings and has been so widely studied and proven, it can literally be said that gratitude is good medicine.

Dr. Robert Emmons, Ph.D., professor at the University of California, Davis, and director of the Emmons Lab, is a leading expert on the health benefits of thankfulness.  Dr. Emmons conducted an experiment with Dr. Michael McCollough of Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, which required several hundred people in three different groups to keep daily diaries.  Group one wrote down the events that occurred during the day, while the second group recorded their unpleasant experiences.  The third group made a daily list of what they were grateful for.

The study showed that daily thanks-giving resulted in higher reported levels of alertness, enthusiasm, determination, optimism and energy.  Also, the gratitude group experienced less depression and stress, was more likely to help others, exercised more regularly and made more progress toward personal goals.

WebMD features an article highlighting gratitude research called, “Boost Your Health With a Dose of Gratitude”, by Elizabeth Heubeck, which begins:  “What would happen if we extended the tradition of giving thanks, typically celebrated just once a year during the holiday season, throughout the entire year?  Such gratitude would be rewarded with better health, say researchers.”

She quotes from a WebMD interview with Dr. Emmons, saying that reduction of stress and enhancement of our immune system are two health-giving products of a grateful state of mind.

A Harvard Medical School newsletter lists these six ways to cultivate a daily practice of thankfulness:  write a thank-you note; thank someone mentally; keep a gratitude journal; count your blessings; pray; meditate.

But what if it seems like we have nothing left to be grateful for?  I thought with compassion this Thanksgiving day about people who lost “everything” during hurricane Sandy.  Events in our lives can make us feel devastated.  It’s especially during those times that gratitude, in the face of dire circumstances, can lift us up and help heal our broken hearts and bodies.

I pray daily for healing in my life and others’.  And I’ve found that being grateful even before I see healing – when it seems like there’s nothing yet to be grateful for – can work wonders.  I learned this from the Bible.  It’s a method Jesus used again and again.  A very dramatic example was when he raised his friend, Lazarus, from the dead.

After Lazarus died, he was placed in a cave as his tomb and by the time Jesus arrived, he’d already been in there for four days.  Despite that vivid, negative evidence, Jesus stood in front of the tomb and practiced thankfulness.  He prayed to God out loud:  “Father, thank you for hearing me.”  Then he called to his friend.  And Lazarus walked out.

We may not often have the opportunity to raise the dead!  So how could that example apply?

Recently I pulled a leg muscle while walking our dog.  I was in a lot of pain.  I’ve noticed that the more consistently I give daily thanks – without making it a ritual, so my heart’s still in it – the more natural it is to do so in a difficult situation.

In praying for healing that night, I lingered on deep gratitude for God’s goodness and the blessings in my life which I attribute to God.  I continued being grateful, even when I woke up in the middle of the night still in pain.  By morning it was much better.  And by the next day it was healed.

Year-round thanks-giving is health-giving.

Joel Magnes blogs on spirituality and health and is a Christian Science practitioner. He lives in Minneapolis with his wife, Brenda, a canine behaviorist (think dog whisperer). They have a charming Havanese dog, Rafi, and a chubby orange tabby cat, Wally. See more on his website, called “HealthThoughts.”  Follow Joel on Twtter @CSinMinnesota

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