Gratitude can improve mental and emotional health


Gratitude is a sentiment inherent in Thanksgiving. (istockphoto.com)

Published: Sunday, November 18, 2012 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, November 15, 2012 at 5:44 p.m.

The fourth Thursday in November is a welcome break for most Americans. It's a time for stuffing faces, a time for hours of guilt-free television. And it's the only time it's not bad form to pass out on the couch just after sunset.

But psychologists suggest there is another way to celebrate Turkey Day that can improve mental health and well-being, and just like the holiday's name, it starts with thanks.

The New World Dictionary defines thanks as "an expression of gratitude, or grateful acknowledgement of something received by or done for one." It's a sentiment inherent in Thanksgiving, or at least its creation in 1863 as a national holiday, according to Dr. Stephanie Smith, novelist and professor of American literature at the University of Florida.

"The anecdotal first Thanksgiving was a strategic decision," she says. "It didn't have anything to do with thanks. They were celebrating the harvest."

It wasn't until 1863, when President Lincoln established the fourth Thursday in November as a national day of thanks, that the holiday took on its character of gratitude. In his Thanksgiving proclamation, the 16th president implored Americans to thank God and ask him to "heal the wounds of the nation."

"Lincoln established the holiday as a means of bringing Americans together in the face of a bloody conflict. He was trying to alleviate despair. He sent food to the troops, including turkey," she says.

Today, Smith says, Thanksgiving serves as a way for Americans to reunite with their extended family members.

"I think Thanksgiving now is about celebrating family traditions," she says. "It's a day where you can stop the madness of the fall and step back and say, let's eat, drink and be merry."

Still, Smith says, Thanksgiving comes at a time of year when many people place an emphasis on giving back.

"A lot of people express thanks by volunteering, by giving back to the community any way they can. Sometimes it's religious; sometimes it's not," she says. "A lot more Americans do that than we know — donate their time or money to charity."

Yet researchers in the relatively new field of positive psychology say there are many more ways to be thankful on Thanksgiving, and their benefits are great. Positive psychology proposes that cultivating virtues like gratitude can benefit your mental and emotional health. Local marriage and family therapist Isabell Springer says expressing gratitude has several effects.

"Grateful feelings enable individuals to savor positive experiences, cope with stressful circumstances and strengthen social relationships," she says. "Thanksgiving Day celebrations are a time to acknowledge what is positive about you. By recognizing your goodness, it helps you find the goodness in others."

Springer says Thanksgiving can often create negative emotions, as families reunite and stress levels run high. She suggests a three-step model to navigate this holiday, and it begins with expressing gratitude.

"First, acknowledge yourself, and how valuable you are. Second, seize the opportunity to appreciate others. Third, have no expectation for others to validate your worth," she says.

Springer also suggests other ways to be thankful on Thanksgiving, including volunteering at a food drive or homeless shelter, visiting a retirement community or attending a service at an unfamiliar church. She also recommends creating and displaying a "gratitude tree," in which each family member gets a leaf on which to write what they're thankful for.

But, Springer says, these activities shouldn't be limited to the holiday season. Acts like giving a loved one a hand-written note, or even Skyping those who live far away, are ways to cultivate gratitude year-round.

"Don't forget those random acts of kindness," she says. "These can have a super-sized impact because you weren't reminded by the holidays."

Springer says this year's Thanksgiving celebrations can provide much-needed stress relief after months of political coverage.

"It's coming after a very long race. The country's split and everyone's very emotional," she says. "Thinking about how divided people feel in our culture, how wonderful would it be to reach out and extend yourself to someone, regardless of their political affiliation?"

WORDS OF KINDNESS

Readers share what makes them thankful this season:

The kindness

Last night, I watched the sun set behind the trees across the lake while sitting on my dock. There was a perfect balmy breeze, and I could stare right at the round, red sun as it set. Must have been all the smoke from a fire making it easy to stare right at it.

There was a kindness that was enveloping me and a sense of greater than me, older than me, bigger than me, smarter than me and not about me at all. I was there by grace. There is an innate intelligence that is running our body and a universal intelligence running our universe, but it is kind. I have been created to experience this kindness, and I get to share that kindness through my work and play. Words can only somehow point to it. But, we all have within us that kindness, that healing, that energy, that wisdom, and I am grateful.

Gratitude is what I think we humans are made for. We can know that which is breathing us. We can share and experience the miracle of loving kindness, and healing is restored. What more can we possibly do?

— Steven Schargel, Melrose

Harmonizing

Born and reared in Gainesville, my siblings and I had the opportunity to take piano lessons. I failed to practice like I should and, therefore, never really learned to play.

My mom is in a nursing home, and while visiting her, I heard a lady (Margaret) singing the “Old Rugged Cross.” I harmonized with her, and went home to see if I could play it. God blessed me to play it, and he added other hymns for me to play.

Margaret passed away, but I still play the piano for my mom and the residents. Their families, too, have thanked me for playing. I thank God for giving me the know-how, and I enjoy every moment when I'm playing. A new resident comes to the piano every time I'm playing and sings with enthusiasm.

— Bettye Stoney Allen, Gainesville

Each day, grateful

In the spring of this year, our family suffered the devastating loss of our oldest son, Clint, in a terrible accident. Attempting and struggling to come to terms with this tragedy is surely the most difficult task we will ever face. Without the beautiful outpouring of love and support of our dear friends and family, we could never have made it this far. Our faith has deepened and wisdom has come to us in the most meaningful way. Gratitude for what you have before you, each and every day, must never be taken for granted.

All that matters is having your loved ones around you. Everything else is insignificant, and it is very easy to lose sight of that. We thank God every day for the precious gift of 19 years we shared with our beautiful, kindhearted son, and we will continue to try to focus on doing good works in his name.

We will cherish our memories of Clint and never, ever forget the most amazing circle of friends, co-workers, our Holy Faith family and all who reached out and cared for us during the most painful thing anyone could endure. For these things, we are thankful.

— David, Christine and Joe Lacinak, Gainesville

Staying in touch

On my daily list of gratitudes is the training (my) five patient children (gave their) mother. Even with all (of them) scattered from California to Ohio, we keep in daily touch because they have shepherded me into the amazing high-tech world of communications, even against my will at times. Because of this training, I can remain more independent and socially active in spite of health limitations. This was especially helpful during my 24/7 care (of) my husband as he became a victim of devastating Alzheimers.

How could I not be grateful every day! Thank you, dear children.

— Tommie Walters Siesky, The Village

For love and health

I am thankful that my two strokes were on the right side of my brain rather than the left because I can still talk and still have my cognitive skills. I am also thankful that I was married to the love of my life for 56 years before he passed away in February 2011. He was my gold-standard husband, and we had a wonderful life together.

— Jeanne Rochford, Gainesville

For blessings

I have so much to be thankful for. God has blessed me with good health, a mom that is 88 years old and is doing well, two children that are high school teachers, two granddaughters that are the joy of my life and love their “Nana” unconditionally, my job, other family members and friends. I was also blessed earlier this year to be selected as one of Santa Fe College's Women of Distinction. It was a gala that I will remember and cherish forever. It reminded me, “To whom much is given, much is required/expected.”

I have been helped by so many people; therefore, I feel obligated to help others. My favorite saying and one that is heard on my phone greeting is “You are blessed to be a blessing.” Because I have been blessed with so much, not necessarily material things, I am required to share those blessings of time, talent and treasure with others.

— Alena K. Lawson, Gainesville

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Kids offer more words of thanks

I teach an enrichment group at my school and asked the children to write an essay about what they are thankful for. I think you will enjoy them. I wrote one also.

— Anni Egan, principal, Healthy Learning Academy

I'm thankful for colors. I'm thankful for colors because if we didn't have colors, how would we express ourselves? You wouldn't be able to. Everything would be dull and boring. I would be very depressed and full of sorrow. With colors, you can show your true self. I feel as if my mind is a big canvas and depending on my mood I will splatter paint on the canvas. For instance, if I was mad I would throw on black and red or if I was peaceful I would paint one huge wide meadow. It would be filled with yellow buttercups and clovers and a big blue sky clear of clouds. Right this very moment, I feel wise and old so in my mind on my canvas I'm painting an owl.

— Olivia Ballard, fifth grade

Like all of you, I'm thankful for a ton of things. One of them is freedom. It's very important. Many people don't get to experience it like we do. Many people are slaves or people who are forced to work for no pay.

America has been sieged by other countries because of beliefs about freedom. One of these events was 9/11, a terrorist siege on the Twin Towers. People put their lives on the line for our freedom. Freedom is a precious gift and will get taken if not protected. I don't take it for granted. This is why I'm thankful for freedom. I hope you agree with every word.

— Abbey Corbett, fifth grade

I am thankful for so many things and one of the things I am most thankful for are my pets. I have 32 animals. I have a special way of talking to each one. They are some of the only things that always understand me. Animals are my best friends and I always feel at home with them. It is nice to have someone you can tell all your secrets to. I love all my animals. These are just a few of the reasons why I am thankful for my animals. If I told you all of them, I would need 300 more sheets of paper.

— Alana Hord, fifth grade

I'm thankful for so much. I'm most thankful for my family. My family is the best. They come and just be a good family. They feed me, give me a bed to sleep on, and plain out take care of me. If I didn't have my family, I don't know where I would be.

If you are feelin' down in the dumps, there is always someone sitting on the couch next to you just waiting to play a game of Gin Rummy. If you're feeling joyful, you have someone to be joyful with. I love so much having a family. I'm so lucky to have the family I do.

— Josh Coke, fifth grade

I'm thankful for a lot of things but most thankful for Tess, my dog. She's loving, kind and playful every day. I have lots of experiences with her. I took good care of here after she got a shot. She was super gloom that whole week. I was frightened that she was allergic to the medicine, but she was back to normal in a jiffy.

Tess and I are the greatest friends now, and nothing will break us apart.

— Noah Greene, fourth grade

I am thankful for animals. After all we are related to animals and dogs are called man's best friend because they are loyal to their people. Another reason I am thankful for animals is they are our ancestors and if dinosaurs didn't exist way back when, we probably wouldn't exist either. That is why I am thankful for animals.

— Marcus Hord, third grade

I am thankful that I can go to Healthy Learning Academy! I have good friends. I like my teacher. We get to play math centers and math around the world. ‘Tis so fun! I love my school! ‘Tis the most fun in my day. My friends are nice too! We read a lot of books like Encylopedia Brown. We love to guess the answer to the book.

— Terry Ford, second grade

Like most people I am thankful for many things: a loving husband, family, friends, health and financial stability all come to mind.

As an educator, I am truly thankful to be principal of Healthy Learning Academy, a small, local charter school. My position allows me to combine two passions, educating children and modeling healthy living.

I am privileged to share each day with children who look forward to coming to school and soak up knowledge like sponges. Together we experience learning through singing, dancing, gardening, cooking and Yoga. We have amazing parental involvement and have grown from 30 to 85 students over the past six years. We have just moved into our very own building.

I feel as if I am living a dream come true when I arrive at school each day. The perfect ending to the dream would be for me to continue my mission right into retirement!

— Anni Egan, principal

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