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Members of Flint Baptist Church expressed gratitude at an early Thanksgiving dinner Wednesday. Research now points to thankfulness as a health benefit. A study found that people who regularly practice gratitude are happier, sleep better and feel more cared for and closer to God.
Daily photo by Brennen Smith
Members of Flint Baptist Church expressed gratitude at an early Thanksgiving dinner Wednesday. Research now points to thankfulness as a health benefit. A study found that people who regularly practice gratitude are happier, sleep better and feel more cared for and closer to God.

Thankful for your HEALTH
Researchers find being grateful yields more happiness, less depression and better sleep

By Melanie B. Smith
msmith@decaturdaily.com 340-2468

"(B)y the goodness of God, we are ... far from want."

A pilgrim at Plymouth, Mass., Edward Winslow, wrote the words in a description of what is popularly called the first Thanksgiving in America. He said surviving Mayflower settlers were grateful for their harvest in the New World, so they put on a feast and invited their neighbors, the Wampanoag.

These native Americans, too, followed a thankful lifestyle. According to the Web site www.plimoth.org, the Wampanoag gave thanks for successful harvests and other good fortune at ceremonies.

All faiths and cultures teach gratitude. For instance, Judaism's patriarchs — including Noah, Moses and David — gave thanks to God, according to the Hebrew scriptures. The Koran urges faithful fasting during Ramadan, "perchance ye shall be grateful."

But is gratitude more than a simple value or a basic religious tenet?

Roman author and orator Cicero wrote, "Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues but the parent of all others." He seemed to elevate gratitude to super status.

Dr. Albert Schweitzer, a missionary doctor who spent his life serving others, wrote that gratitude is more than a virtue. It is a mysterious law of existence, he said.

"In obedience to it we have to fulfill our destiny," he said.

Happier, healthier?

Research now points to thankfulness as a health benefit.

Robert Emmons of the University of California Davis, along with Michael McCullough of the University of Miami, concluded that gratitude can transform people. They spent seven years on a research project, "Dimensions and Perspectives of Gratitude."

They found that people who regularly practice gratitude:

  • Increase happiness levels by 25 percent or more.

  • Sleep longer and better.

  • Report higher levels of life satisfaction and optimism and less depression and stress.

  • Feel more cared for and closer to God.

    The researchers found that most people report being grateful and on average ranked their level of thankfulness almost 6 on a 7-point scale.

    Gratitude has previously rarely been studied by psychologists, said Emmons in his new book "Thanks! How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier," published by Houghton Mifflin.

    He claims that gratitude is "literally one of the few things that can measurably change people's lives."

    Emmons said it should be practiced as a discipline but takes real effort to maintain. His "prescriptions" for becoming more thankful include keeping a gratitude journal, learning prayers of gratitude and using one's senses to appreciate life.

    Writing in a gratitude journal for three weeks resulted in better sleep, more energy and more time spent exercising, the researchers found. They said a sample of adults with neuromuscular disease who participated in a 21-day "gratitude intervention" noted more optimistic ratings of their lives and greater amounts of positive moods.

    Emmons said in an email interview that the health-related findings surprised him. He said he thought that keeping the journals would enhance people's moods but not necessarily give more energy or improve sleep.

    For him, the most important outcome of the studies was learning that gratitude is a choice, Emmons said.

    "It is a type of positive thinking that involves recognizing the good in your life and seeing that other people are the source ..." he said. "So it is acknowledging that we have received gifts and even that life is a gift."

    The John Templeton Foundation funded the studies. Emmons is a professor and research scientist, and McCullough is a psychology professor.

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