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Commentary: How Expressing Gratitude This Thanksgiving Can Better Your Health

As you sit down to your Thanksgiving meal this year, many of you will give thanks. The form of this gratitude will vary by your religious beliefs, family customs, and others’ patience to get to the heart of the eating occasion. The beginning of the meal may be marked by a prayer passed down across generations led by the eldest member of the family or an informal lighting of candles at the table. Some families have a tradition to go around the table and share what they are most thankful for over the past year. Whatever the ritual, it is a sign of gratitude, and its benefits go beyond the dinner table.

We know the Norman Rockwell images of Thanksgiving dinners where everyone is happy and anticipating the perfectly browned turkey—and no dish has been burned or forgotten. But do we have images of gratitude that sustain us through the stressful holiday season? Several studies indicate that experiencing gratitude is related to important health outcomes and is an important aspect of parenting. Drawing from positive psychology, researchers have found that adults who express more gratitude in their daily lives are less likely to be depressed, are happier, and may even sleep better. In one study sponsored by the National Institutes of Health, over 100 patients who had been diagnosed with heart failure and regularly expressed gratitude in their daily lives consistently experienced better sleep, less depression, and less inflammation. Other researchers have found that expressing gratitude can lead to a reduced risk of depression in those who have arthritis and irritable bowel syndrome.

Researchers in Hong Kong have developed the Happy Family Kitchen program, a family-based intervention aimed at promoting more shared meals together and improving communication during meals. One group was assigned to a “gratitude” intervention whereby they practiced expressions of gratefulness and appreciation of other family members’ contributions to their daily lives.

The specific behaviors that constituted the gratitude exercises were: expressing thanks to your family members through words and actions, praising the strength and goodness of your family members through words and actions, expressing appreciation for your family members’ dedication through words and actions, and providing kind and positive suggestions to your family members. The group that practiced these expressions of gratitude experienced greater family closeness and family happiness six weeks after the intervention (it should be mentioned, however, that other interventions focusing on flow and happiness also demonstrated similar results). These sound like a good set of rules for the Thanksgiving table.

This Thanksgiving is an opportune time to fold gratitude into our everyday lives. Once the dishes are put away, just one more bite of cold stuffing is savored, and a snuggle with grandchildren is filed into the memory jar, let us all show gratitude for the important people in our lives and the opportunity to share time together.

Barbara Fiese is director of the Family Resiliency Center and professor of human development and family studies at the University of Illinois.