Thanksgiving and the Science Behind Gratitude

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What began as a day of giving thanks and sacrifice for the blessing of the harvest and of the preceding year our Thanksgiving is not exclusive to the USA.

Similar named festival holidays occur in Germany and Japan. Thanksgiving is celebrated on the second Monday of October in Canada and on the fourth Thursday of November in the United States and around the same part of the year in other places. Although Thanksgiving has historical roots in religious and cultural traditions, it has long been celebrated as a secular holiday as well.

Thanksgiving in the US is a day of family or friends and a day of gratitude. Throughout history and around the world, religious leaders and philosophers have extolled the virtue of gratitude. Some have even described gratitude as “social glue” that fortifies relationships — between friends, family, and romantic partners — and serves as the backbone of human society. 

Most people have an instinctive understanding of what gratitude is, but it can be surprisingly difficult to define. Is it an emotion? A virtue? A behavior? Gratitude can mean different things to different people in different contexts. However, researchers have developed some frameworks for conceptualizing gratitude so that it can be studied empirically and rigorously.

Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough, for example, define gratitude as a two-step process: 1) “recognizing that one has obtained a positive outcome” and 2) “recognizing that there is an external source for this positive outcome.” While most of these positive benefits come from other people — hence gratitude’s reputation as an “other-oriented” emotion — people can also experience gratitude toward God, fate, nature, etc.

Research suggests that gratitude is not simply a cultural construct. It has deep roots that are embedded in our biology and our evolutionary history. Animals as diverse as fish, birds, and vampire bats engage in “reciprocal altruism” — behaviors in which they repay good deeds done to them by others. Many scientists see this activity and the desire from which it springs as an expression of gratitude, and some scientists have suggested that gratitude may have evolved as a mechanism to drive this reciprocal altruism.

Support for the idea that gratitude may have arisen as an evolutionary adaptation comes in part from research on primates. Studies have found that chimpanzees are more likely to share food with a chimpanzee that had groomed them earlier in the day and are more likely to help another chimpanzee with a task if that chimpanzee had helped them in the past.

Meanwhile, neuroscientists have identified brain areas that are likely involved in experiencing and expressing gratitude (one found that people who more readily experience gratitude have more gray matter in an area of the right inferior temporal cortex). A few studies have identified specific genes that may underlie our ability to experience gratitude, and sets of identical twins have shown higher correlation of self-reported gratitude than fraternal twins have — suggesting a genetic component to gratitude.

Recent studies have also begun exploring the developmental roots of gratitude. This work suggests that even fairly young children have some concept of gratitude that develops as they mature

Gratitude may also benefit people with various medical and psychological challenges. For example, one study found that more grateful cardiac patients reported better sleep, less fatigue, and lower levels of cellular inflammation, while another found that heart failure patients who kept a gratitude journal for eight weeks were more grateful and had reduced signs of inflammation afterwards. Several studies have found that more grateful people experience less depression and are more resilient following traumatic events.

Multiple studies have also found that people with higher levels of dispositional gratitude have signs of better psychological health, including higher levels of perceived social support and lower levels of stress, depression, and anxiety.

Since evidence links gratitude to a host of psychological benefits, it stands to reason that activities encouraging people to feel more grateful might produce similar benefits. Many studies have explored this possibility. In one study, people who wrote about their blessings weekly for 10 weeks reported feeling more optimistic about the following week; they also felt better about their overall lives than did participants who wrote about daily hassles or ordinary events in their lives. In another study, people who wrote down three things that went well, and identified the causes of those good things, reported increased happiness six months after the week-long intervention.

In recent years, studies have found that more grateful adolescents are more interested and satisfied with their school lives, are more kind and helpful, and are more socially integrated. A few studies have shown that gratitude journaling in the classroom can improve students’ mood and that a curriculum designed to help students appreciate the benefits they have gained from others can successfully teach children to think more gratefully and to exhibit more grateful behavior.

Whatever the science is around gratitude, let’s each, as we gather around our table with family, friends or acquaintances take a moment and ponder the blessings before us. In Alamogordo there is a spike in the virus and we must be careful and diligent but we also must show gratitude that we made it through the darkness, though prices are high and the economy is fractured we in Alamogordo and New Mexico are stronger, more aware and are survivors with a path forward. For that this Thanksgiving we are thankful. 

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