November 28, 2017 by School of Medicine Webmaster

Thanksgiving was last week, an occasion when many of us spend time with family and friends and intentionally note things for which we are thankful. Although Thanksgiving is a holiday devoted to doing this, expressing thanks and gratitude is something we can do throughout the year. Practicing this often makes us feel better, and there is a substantial amount of research documenting the benefits of practicing gratitude. Humans have an inherent negativity bias, such that we are more attuned to negative than positive stimuli. This presumably had an evolutionary benefit for our ancestors who often lived in very dangerous environments. Being more sensitive to potential threats may have been associated with survival so that we have wound up with this tendency as a species. Knowing we have this bias, as we pay attention to our present moment experience, we can offset it some by intentionally appreciating things that we are grateful for. In every moment our brains receive many more inputs than they can possibly process consciously. Our default filter is to pay more attention to negative stimuli, and having the intention to notice positive stimuli can balance this out. As an example, think about driving to work. Which would likely have a more lasting impact, someone yelling at you because they felt you were driving too slowly, or someone waving thanks because you let them merge in front of you? For many of us, the former would have a greater impact and we would think about it for a longer time. If we are particularly prone to a negativity bias, we might ruminate about it all day. Instead, to help level the playing field, we might have a practice of intentionally noting things we are grateful for, and spend time reflecting on them, in this case acknowledging that someone thanked us for a courteous thing we did.

Martin Seligman, a noted psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, has studied the impact of practicing gratitude. In a large-scale internet-based randomized trial, he asked individuals in one arm of the study to write down three good things that happened to them each day and their causes. He asked them to do this for one week. He then measured their subjective well-being for the next six months. Those who did the gratitude practice had improved happiness and a decreased number of symptoms of depression that persisted for the entire six months of the study. Others have also studied gratitude practices and found similar positive results.

As we continue through the holiday season, this can be a good time to begin to practice gratitude with intention, perhaps even writing down things we are grateful for as in the study cited above. The things we may note do not have to be big. As in the driving example, we can be aware that we are grateful that someone thanked us because we took time to let them go ahead of us.   We can be grateful that we noticed a dramatic sunrise or sunset because we took the time to pause and pay attention to it. We can be grateful that we had enough money to help someone in need because we chose to spend a little less on ourselves. There are many things most of us can be grateful for if we take the time to pay attention to them. Thanksgiving may be an annual holiday, but it can also be something that we practice every day.

Filed Under: Monthly Musings