On this day of Thanksgiving, I find myself reflecting on gratitude and our relationship to it. Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday. It feels like the only big holiday that doesn’t buy into the commercialism of our materialistic Western culture. It’s not about candy or presents or more, more, MORE. It’s about giving thanks, being with those we love, coming into the heart, and remembering to be grateful for the abundance of blessings in our lives.
The typical Thanksgiving gratitudes are easy. I’m grateful for family—both the family I was born into and the one I’ve chosen. I count my blessings every day for the opportunity to be the mother of my little girl Siena, who is the most extraordinary child, and I would say that even if I weren’t her mother. I’m grateful for the beautiful home where I live, where the redwoods meet the mountains and the ocean and the bounty of nature surrounds me. I’m grateful for the mountain of delicious food I will be offering my loved ones today. I’m grateful for meaningful work, excellent health, and my Tempurpedic mattress, which I rest upon as I write this (yes, it’s one of my deepest gratitudes and no, they’re not paying me to say this!) I’m grateful for my deepening relationship with the Divine and all the fulfillment and meaning that accompanies my spiritual development.
On this day of Thanksgiving, people around the United States are expressing gratitude for the bounty of their lives, but many may not realize that in doing so, they are also improving the quality of their health and increasing their life expectancies.
The scientific evidence is conclusive when it comes to mood, outlook, and health. Happy people live 7-10 years longer than unhappy people, and optimistic people have a 77% lower risk of heart disease than pessimistic people. But how can you become happier and more optimistic in your world view?
The How Of Happiness
In Sonja Lyubomirsky’s The How Of Happiness, the author teaches us how 50% of our propensity for happiness is based on a genetic set point, something we can’t influence very much, 10% is based on life circumstances (such as getting the promotion, finding The One, or achieving the creative dream), and 40% is “intentional activity” that we can influence with our behavior.
That means we can be up to 40% happier in our lives without changing our circumstances one bit, and one of the key intentional activities is the practice of gratitude.
Research shows that consistently grateful people are happier, more energetic, more hopeful, more helpful, more empathic, more spiritual, more forgiving, and less materialistic. They’re also less likely to be depressed, anxious, lonely, envious, neurotic, or sick.
In one study, one group of participants were asked to name five things they’re grateful for every day, while another group was asked to list five hassles. Those expressing gratitude were not only happier and more optimistic, they reported fewer physical symptoms, such as headache, cough, nausea, or acne. Other gratitude studies have shown that those with chronic illnesses demonstrate clinical improvement when practicing regular gratitude.
Severely depressed people instructed to list grateful thoughts on a website daily were found to be significantly less depressed by the end of the study when compared to depressed people who weren’t asked to express gratitude. And we know that depression is a significant risk factor for disease.
For more surprising scientific proof about how to be ultimately healthy, read Mind Over Medicine or watch my public television special Heal Yourself: Mind Over Medicine (check listings here). (Hint: Being generous and radical self care are good for your health, so try giving generously of your time and love this holiday season while also focusing on your own self care!)
On this 12 year anniversary of 9/11, I can't help thinking about the consciousness of the planet and how far we've come. It feels like there is so much more love in the world, like so many people are waking up to the divinity within them. And it gives me hope.
Earlier this month, I was flying on a plane en route to Fargo, North Dakota, where I gave my latest TEDx talk, and just as the plane's wheels were about to touch down in Minneapolis, the pilot gunned the engine and the plane took off again, into the wild blue yonder.
Everyone on the plane exchanged worried looks that said, "Ruh roh, Shaggy. That wasn't supposed to happen." My first heart-stopping thought was "Terrorists have hijacked our plane and we're about to crash into the new World Trade Center."
I searched for a phone. There wasn't one. What ever happened to those satellite phones that sat above your fold out tray table? I rehearsed what I would say if I could pick up the phone and call the people I love most on our flight to New York.
Various versions of "I love you so much I can't even speak words about it, and I'm sorry I haven't said that every day of my life because it's been true every day since we've met." I would call my mother and thank her for being the best mother a girl could ever have. I would apologize for being the worst version of myself whenever she is around and bow at her feet for loving me unconditionally in spite of my regularly bad behavior. I would remind her that the bad behavior is only because she has made me so secure in the certainty of her love that I can be a total brat and Mom will still be there.
I would call my husband and remind him that it has been an honor to be his wife, and that I have never felt as loved as I've felt since I met him eleven years ago. I would thank him for sticking with me, even after I quit my job and threw our lives into turmoil, even when I criticize and nag and get all “holier than thou” on him. I would ask him to remember the last hug we shared and to know that, even when I’m gone, I will be holding my arms around him.
For those of us in the United States, today is a day of giving thanks, of counting our blessings, of expressing gratitude, of remembering how far we’ve come. But even if you live elsewhere, I invite you to give thanks not just today, but every day.
It’s no accident that I put Gratitude in the healing bubble of the wellness model I introduced in my first TEDx talk and will be teaching further in my upcoming book Mind Over Medicine. Along with Love, Pleasure, and Service, Gratitude is essential to living a whole, balanced, optimally healthy life.
The Science of Gratitude
In her book The How Of Happiness, Sonja Lyubomirsky shares that the happiest people were not the richest, most beautiful, or most successful. Instead, as it turns out, the golden ticket to happiness lies not so much in changing our natural tendencies or even our life circumstances, but in adopting certain behaviors that have been scientifically proven to increase happiness. In her study, happy people shared similar traits.
They devoted a lot of time to nurturing their relationships with family and friends, they were first to lend a helping hand, practiced optimism when imagining their futures, savored life’s pleasures and made efforts to try to live in the moment, exercised frequently, were deeply committed to lifelong goals and ambitions, and showed poise and strength when facing life’s inevitable challenges. She also found that you can be happier by avoiding over-thinking, cutting yourself loose from ruminating thoughts, eliminating social comparisons, taking action to solve problems right when they arise, seeking meaning amidst stress, loss or trauma, practicing forgiveness, engaging in activities that get you “in the flow,” smiling more, and making efforts to take care of your body.
But perhaps the single most potent factor affecting how happy you are - and the one most easy to change - is how much you make gratitude a practice.
As described in his book Authentic Happiness, Martin Seligman conducted a study and taught a single happiness-inducing strategy to a group of severely depressed individuals. Although these people were so abysmally depressed they could barely climb out of bed, they were instructed to do one simple task every day: go to a website and write down three good things that happened to them that day. Within 15 days, their depression improved from “severely depressed” to “mildly to moderately depressed.” 94% of them reported feeling better!