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The Importance of Giving Thanks

Count your blessings, name them one by one…

For those of us who have spent much time in protestant worship services, the hymn referenced is one many of us probably remember singing with unabashed gusto. This hymn captures the feeling of not only surviving difficult times but absolutely thriving through them when we take the time to be thankful. This hymn serves as an effective reminder to systematically reflect on the events of our lives that happen that we don’t deserve, that we thoroughly enjoy and that were done for us intentionally.

It turns out that naming our blessings may be a simple way to live a happier life.

Dr. Robert A. Emmons has just published a book simply titled “thanks!” that reviews the role gratitude plays in human development and existence. This highly accessible book captures the importance of this essential human feeling through review of scientific work and numerous historical examples. The careful attention he pays to the experimental work in this area brings enough realism to the sometime super-human examples of gratefulness that reading it left me feeling inspired.

In his book, Emmons describes a study he published in 2003 that warrants review. The take home message is that people who take the time to reflect on what they are grateful for are simply put, happier, than those of us with our heads buried in front of our computers 24/7. Here are the details.

In a 10-week study, Emmons had participants keep journals for the entire ten weeks, which were coded for examples of happiness. Additionally, starting in the second week, he had one group of participants write down five things that had happened during the past week that they were grateful for. Another group wrote down five hassles they faced every week, a third group just wrote down five things that happened to them with no instructions to focus on either positive or negative events.

Those who kept the list of what they were thankful for felt better about their lives and were more optimistic as well. This group also reported exercising more and they had fewer physical complaints.

In the 2003 paper, Emmons repeated a very similar study to the one described, confirming the effect on happiness seems to be related directly to levels of gratitude. His 2003 study concludes with an experiment where he recruited participants with neuromuscular disorders, non-life threatening but seriously debilitating and related to high levels of chronic pain. Over a 21-day period, a group that listed what they were grateful for and a group instructed to write about daily life experience again demonstrated large differences between groups. Those in the gratitude group were much more optimistic- but perhaps more importantly—they had improved quality and quantity of sleep.

The cynic in me finds this to be almost too good to be true. But Emmons work is very compelling. And any review of the hottest topics in science will find repeated mention of the positive effects of emotions such as gratitude and of pro-social behaviors. Much remains to be done to fully establish the mechanisms by which gratitude can alter emotions and improve health. But if I were a betting man I would say it has to be worth a try. If anyone else tries it as well please keep me informed on how it goes.