Give Thanks. It's Good for You.
Research on Gratitude Shows Evidence of Mental Health Payoffs

By Darrin Koltow
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The feelings of stress that Thanksgiving evokes sometimes overwhelm the seasonal beneficence. But research suggests that the actual process of giving thanks (whether it's for getting to the meal on time, for getting along with Aunt Jane or for getting by without salmonella) may hold benefits for the giver.

That's the kind of thinking behind so-called positive psychology, a movement that has gained an academic following in recent years, as researchers have delved into the basis for feelings such as well-being.

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The glass-half-full approach to life has a long history, of course: "Reflect on your present blessings," wrote Charles Dickens in his 1835 story "Christmas Festivities," "of which every man has many, not on your past misfortunes, of which all men have some."

What's different today is the expanding volume of data that link advice such as Dickens's to improved self-esteem, relationships, sleep, self-motivation and general well-being -- qualities that count in managing momentary stresses such as Thanksgiving and much more serious ones, too. Recognition of this phenomenon has healers of body and mind shifting their attention from illness to wellness, as well as to the mind's profound influence on the body.

A study of gratitude among Vietnam war veterans by George Mason University psychologist Todd Kashdan revealed a correlation between being grateful and feelings of well-being.

That study, published in Behaviour Research and Therapy in 2005, measured the effects of thankfulness on 77 veterans from Buffalo, N.Y., 42 of whom suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

For two weeks, each veteran took home two questionnaires. On one, he recorded experiences of gratitude throughout the day, such as thanking his partner for cooking a meal, or simply feeling thankful for a sense of abundance. On the other questionnaire he recorded experiences of feeling good. These included not just momentary pleasures such as laughing with friends, but also personal achievement, such as doing three more push-ups than he did the day before.

Gitendra Uswatte, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Alabama and a collaborator on the study, says veterans with PTSD reported one-third fewer moments of gratitude than veterans without PTSD. Those in the PTSD group also experienced, on average, fewer good days than the non-PTSD group: six out of 14 days (or 43 percent) compared with 11 out of 14 (or 79 percent).

When Kashdan correlated feelings of gratitude with well-being, he found that whenever one veteran's well-being was different from that of another, as much as 65 percent of the factors that produced that difference was attributable to his experience of gratitude. And "the benefits derived from gratitude were the same, whether or not you had PTSD," Kashdan says.

Based on this study, Kashdan and other researchers have begun asking whether their understanding of gratitude might aid soldiers returning from Iraq, as well as victims of PTSD and other traumas.

Gratitude is also associated with being less acquisitive, according to a study whose results appeared this year in the Journal of Social Psychology.

Rhett Diessner, a professor of psychology at Lewis-Clark State College in Lewiston, Idaho, headed the study. He gave separate tests for gratitude and materialism to 206 college students. On the materialism test, students indicated how much they admired someone because of the size of his house, for example. On the gratitude test, students rated their appreciation of family and friends, and simple pleasures such as eating. They also rated their general feeling of abundance.

The results showed that, 99.9 percent of the time, a student with high marks in gratitude scored low on materialism.

"If you're a betting person, you could make a pretty confident prediction that, the higher someone's gratitude is, the lower their materialism will be -- and vice versa," Diessner says.

Diessner found one other connection of special interest to those complaining of nothing to be grateful for: the greater your appreciation of beauty, the greater your gratitude.

Diessner conducted a study of 122 college students, with the results slated for publishing in early 2008 in the Journal of Psychology: Interdisciplinary and Applied. Diessner found that participants with high scores on beauty appreciation almost always scored high on gratitude.

Diessner's study defines beauty broadly: a Van Gogh painting; the curves and textures of a seashell; also moral beauty, such as the altruism of a Mother Teresa or Albert Schweitzer.

Which leaves a simple, old-fashioned message for how to see past the stresses and enjoy Thanksgiving -- and more: Be grateful for what you've got and appreciative of what you see around you.

Darrin Koltow is a freelance writer in Orlando.

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