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Thank You, Thank You, Thank You

Mental Health professionals highlight potential health benefits of gratitude.

Mental health experts say keeping a gratitude journal can improve one’s mental and physical wellbeing.

Mental health experts say keeping a gratitude journal can improve one’s mental and physical wellbeing. Photo by Marilyn Campbell.

For many, November ushers in a season of giving thanks, an opportunity to express gratitude, but it can mean even more: some researchers say that Thanksgiving might actually be good for your health.

“When people view what they have as what they need, they are happier,” said Linda Gulyn, a professor of psychology at Marymount University in Arlington, Va. “Logically, if you don’t view what you have as adequate, then it is going to lead to unhappiness. The value system of the community can distract you from seeing what you have.”

Robert Emmons, Ph.D, editor of The Journal of Positive Psychology and a pioneer in gratitude research, conducted a study of adults with neuromuscular disease. After a 21-day gratitude intervention, he found that the gratitude group was more optimistic, had higher levels of energy, more positive moods and slept better than the control group.

In another study, Emmons found that those who kept weekly gratitude journals exercised regularly and reported fewer physical ailments and a better sense of well-being than those who wrote about negative or neutral events. Dr. Michael Siegel of Fairfax County Health Network and Molina Health Care, points to a 2010 study published in Circulation, a journal of the American Heart Association, that looked at more 90,000 women and found that the more cynical study participants had higher rates of both coronary heart disease and cancer. “Those with a positive outlook fared better,” he said.

“If all you write down is that your boss yelled at you or you couldn’t get all your work done, you’re probably not going to feel better,” said Karen Prince, a licensed clinical social worker and a Kensington, Md., based psychotherapist.

Linda Berg-Cross of Potomac, a researcher and professor of psychology at Howard University in Washington, D.C., said, “Being optimistic improves your immune system and improves your cognitive functioning.”

Prince says that gratitude may not come easily to some. “It is harder for adults to establish gratitude because most of those characteristics are started as children. Parents can model gratitude for your children.”

SO HOW DOES ONE cultivate a sense of gratitude? “It is like a self-fulfilling prophecy: if you look for things to be wrong you’re going to find things wrong,” said Arlington resident Dr. Lisa Calusic, a psychiatrist at Inova Behavioral Health Service and Inova Mount Vernon Hospital in Alexandria, Va. “When you’re a hammer, everything is going to look like a nail. Remind yourself that just because a couple of things are negative or one thing is negative, doesn’t mean that everything is negative.”

“One way to develop gratitude is to engage in community service and help people who are less fortunate,” said Prince. “For example, go into a soup kitchen and serve meals once a week.”

Prince also encourages others to notice their surroundings. “Stop and smell the proverbial roses,” she said. “A lot of people in the Washington area are really stressed out and engulfed by whatever their dilemma is and they forget that there is a bigger picture and so much more to the world. When you slow down, you can see the forest for the trees more easily.”