Thanksgiving is over. I hope you had a good holiday, surrounded by family and friends, and that you had a great turkey supper. But even if you spent Thanksgiving alone with a bowl of soup, the principle of the holiday can improve your mental health.
Researchers at the University of California have found that gratitude is positively associated with good mental health. Professor Robert Emmons of UC-Davis studied people who kept a “gratitude journal” on a daily basis, noting the things for which they felt thankful. According to an article from WebMD.com, “Emmons’ research showed that people who keep gratitude journals on a weekly basis exercise more regularly, report fewer physical symptoms, feel better about their lives as a whole and maintain greater optimism about the future.”
In other words, you can improve your physical and mental health simply by focusing on the positive aspects of life. Even on a bad day, there are usually good things that happen. Emphasizing the negative leads to frustration and sometimes even depression.
Another aspect of gratitude is showing appreciation and thanks. When was the last time you thanked a family member for something he or she routinely does for you? Did you tell your mother you enjoyed the most recent dinner she cooked for you? Have you thanked your family for helping you financially, if they do? Have you told the professor who regularly helps you during office hours that you appreciate his or her time? When Aunt Edith gives you a hideous hand-knit scarf for the holidays, can you be truly thankful that she loves you enough to go to all that effort, instead of pouting because you didn’t get a gift certificate?
A significant number of students who come in for counseling don’t have good family support. If you are fortunate enough to have parents or other relatives who try their very best for you, even if they miss the target sometimes, be grateful. If you start to look for things to appreciate, they begin to appear, almost like magic.
When I do couples therapy, I often ask the couple to say at least one positive thing to each other every day. It is amazing how this small bit of behavior can make a significant change in an angry, negative relationship.
If the people in your life seem to be letting you down at the present time, you can still be grateful for the beauty in the world. Do you walk across campus without seeing the loveliness of the trees? Have you forgotten to listen to the birds? Do you ignore the good smell of the earth after a rain? There is always something in nature to lift our spirits.
Religiously observant people practice gratitude and thankfulness in their services, but sometimes forget to incorporate it into their daily activities and relationships. Take a few minutes each day, whether you write a journal or not, to acknowledge what you appreciate – your health, your family, your friends, your education, the world around you, your opportunities, or whatever means the most to you. You’ll be doing yourself a favor by extending the spirit of Thanksgiving into everyday life.