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Oct 30, 2023

The Science of Thanksgiving: How Gratitude Impacts Our Well-Being

Sheila Tucker

Photography By

M.Kat
Research shows that gratitude can increase self-esteem and day-to-day satisfaction while decreasing anxiety and depressive symptoms. Sounds good, right?

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As we all sat around the table watching the steam from our food waft towards the ceiling, it was proposed that we go around the table and mention three things we’re grateful for. Internally, my eyes rolled. Externally, I smiled. Seriously, what kind of Hallmark Thanksgiving Day movie set did I stumble upon? Hmmm, my friend Nicole did not mention this portion of the “festivities” in the invite.

Truth be told, I didn’t stop to think about these types of things. I was busy moving from one thing to the next, and gratitude was nowhere in sight. Honestly, the first thought that popped into my sarcastic-leaning head was being thankful I wore a loose-fitting dress so I wouldn’t feel the waistband on my overstuffed stomach after dinner. But I hardly think this is the kind of gratefulness the family sought in their idyllic reach for the perfect Thanksgiving moment.

You don’t know me, but here’s the thing: I pride myself on being on time, even early. However, I will purposely show up late to all functions (yes, every single one) when there’s an “introduce yourself to the group” component. And here I was trying to look enthusiastic about sharing my gratitude while my stomach was audibly growling because of my nerves.

Luckily, other family members went first, giving me a moment to form a plan while simultaneously overthinking what should be simple answers. Admittedly, this felt like a pop quiz for a class I’d never attended. I became more nervous as my friend’s family crafted lists so sugary sweet I was convinced I’d get a cavity right on the spot. Ugh.

Finally, or should I say, unfortunately, it was my turn. Deep breath in. Deep breath out. Staring out into the void but moving my head like I was making eye contact, I said, “I’m thankful I met Nicole. I’m thankful for our friendship. And I’m thankful you invited me to share Thanksgiving with your beautiful family.” There, done. Not too saccharine, but just sweet enough.

From the smiling faces across the table, I knew I’d passed the test and gained admission to dinner. Whew, I was grateful this whole gratitude thing was over.

Sheila Tucker is a licensed marriage and family therapist and founder of Heart Mind & Soul Counseling.

Later in life, when working on a research project with children diagnosed with cancer, I gained a whole new appreciation for gratitude. It even made an appearance in our findings. In general, though, the collective research shows that gratitude is strongly related to social, emotional, and psychological well-being. In short, it’s associated with greater happiness, and who doesn’t want that?

Admittedly, it can feel contrived at first. But with practice, the genuineness of it starts to win out. You may wonder how to practice gratitude other than that journal exercise you were once told to do and never remembered.

Well, I’ve got you covered. Below are three ways to get started. No journal is needed but feel free if that’s your thing:

1. Acknowledge the good stuff. You know those times when your day is going well until that one thing happens? Instead of remembering our day as being primarily okay with a blip of not okay, we tend to hold onto the negative, banishing the good parts into the ethers of our minds. Since you’re already so good at acknowledging the bad stuff, let’s practice recognizing one good or okay thing. For example, I traveled to and from Bluffton in record time.

2. Say thank you. Send a thank you by texting or emailing a friend or writing a review for your favorite restaurant. You could also put pen to paper and mail a note. No time or find you get tongue-tied? As one of my favorite yoga instructors says as an option for the present yoga pose, “or do it in your head.” The same goes here. Do it in your head.

3. Write it down. List one thing, person, or experience for which you are grateful. This doesn’t have to be anything fancy. It can be in the Notes section of your phone or on a Google Doc. And it can be once a day or when you remember. However, the more you do it, the more you’ll form a habit. Another option is to say it to yourself or someone else. And your gratitude can be simple, e.g., I’m thankful for coffee or not running into a neighbor while walking my dog in my PJs. Keep it simple.

Research shows that gratitude can increase self-esteem and day-to-day satisfaction while decreasing anxiety and depressive symptoms. Sounds good, right? Essentially, it’s a mindset shift—a way to occasionally look at life through a different lens. It also spreads goodwill and may provide an opportunity for more connection.

There was a time when I would roll my eyes when anyone mentioned the concept of gratitude, especially if it was delivered in an “it will save your soul” syrupy way. However, the mind shift that happens simply from taking note of one thing that went right each day can be tremendously helpful. It allows you to experience more hope instead of dwelling on the hopeless or unfortunate. It was even one of the top coping skills the children and families in our research project cited as helpful.

As a side note, expressing gratitude will not inherently change your situation. Those sweet kiddos and their families were still dealing with a horrible cancer diagnosis and dreadful treatments. Their act of gratefulness merely helped them move with a little more hope, an inch at a time, through their day.

Some people practice an act of gratitude every day. Um, not I. That’s right; I’m a therapist who does not practice daily gratitude. Like most people, I forget. However, a few times a week, as I’m turning my office lights on or off, I bring to mind something I’m grateful for. Some days, I’m filled with gratitude that I get to work with the most amazing people. Other days, I’m simply grateful I didn’t trip over the rug … again.

And you know what? It does help set the tone of the day by bringing in a little glimmer of knowing that good and even inspiring things are happening all around me. Give it a try. Or not. It’s up to you.

Thankfully, I made it through Thanksgiving with Nicole. I even managed to spend some time with her family again at Christmas. Much like the round table gratitude discussion, I was caught off guard when the singing started. I was elbow-deep in dishwater when I was assigned my line for the “12 Days of Christmas.” Again, with nowhere to hide, I opted to lean into the family musical that had magically unfolded around me. Laughing hysterically and with a shake of my head, I was oh so very grateful to have a friend with such an entertaining family.  

Sheila Tucker is a licensed marriage and family therapist and founder of Heart Mind & Soul Counseling. She empowers clients who overthink, worry, and experience their fair share of anxiety to become more rooted in peace, ease, and confidence. When not in the office, you’ll find her walking her pups or planning her next mountain getaway with her husband.

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