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Researchers have uncovered a whole new reason to be thankful this ThanksgivingFred Yager

November 24, 2010

Scientists on both coasts have determined that being grateful can improve your psychological, emotional and physical well-being.

Researchers at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York and the University of California at Davis say that adults who frequently feel grateful have more energy, more optimism, more social connections and more happiness than those who do not.

According to studies conducted over the past decade people who maintain an attitude of gratitude are also less likely to be depressed, envious, greedy or alcoholics. They earn more money, sleep more soundly, exercise more regularly and have greater resistance to viral infections.

Researchers are also finding that gratitude brings similar benefits in children and adolescents. In fact, children who feel and act grateful tend to be less materialistic, get better grades, set higher goals, complain of fewer headaches and stomach aches and feel more satisfied with their friends, families and schools than those who don’t, studies show.

Jeffrey J. Froh is an assistant professor of psychology at Hofstra University who has conducted much of the research with children. He says a lot of these findings are things we learned in kindergarten or our grandmothers told us, but we now have scientific evidence to prove them.

Adding to that, Robert Emmons, a professor of psychology at the University of California-Davis and a pioneer in gratitude research says that with the realization that one has benefited comes the awareness of the need to reciprocate.

The research is part of what the Wall Street Journal calls the “positive psychology” movement. It focuses on developing strengths rather than alleviating disorders. Cultivating gratitude is also a form of cognitive-behavioral therapy, which holds that changing peoples’ thought patterns can dramatically affect their moods.

Gratitude can also be misused to exert control over the receiver and enforce loyalty. Dr. Froh says you can avoid this by being empathic toward the person you are thanking?ˆ”and by honestly assessing your motivations.

In an upcoming paper in the Journal of Happiness Studies, Dr. Froh and colleagues surveyed 1,035 high-school students and found that the most grateful had more friends and higher GPAs, while the most materialistic had lower grades, higher levels of envy and less satisfaction with life.

Much of the research on gratitude has looked at associations, not cause-and-effect relationships; it’s possible that people who are happy, healthy and successful simply have more to be grateful for. But in a landmark study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2003, Dr. Emmons and University of Miami psychologist Michael McCullough showed that counting blessings can actually make people feel better.

The researchers randomly divided more than 100 undergraduates into three groups. One group was asked to list five things they were grateful for during the past week for 10 consecutive weeks. The second group listed five things that annoyed them each week and the third group simply listed five events that had occurred. They also completed detailed questionnaires about their physical and mental health before, during and after.

Those who listed blessings each week had fewer health complaints, exercised more regularly and felt better about their lives in general than the other two groups.

Being grateful also forces people to overcome what psychologists call the “negativity bias”?ˆ”the innate tendency to dwell on problems, annoyances and injustices rather than upbeat events.

Delivering your thanks in person can be particularly powerful. One study found that fourth-graders who took a “gratitude visit” felt better about themselves even two months later?ˆ”particularly those whose moods were previously low.

So check it out. See how you feel this Thanksgiving as you sit around the table share what you have to be grateful for and see how it makes you feel.

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