Like many American families this coming Thursday, my family will gather around the dinner table to celebrate Thanksgiving Day. Before the meal begins, each family member will share something he or she is thankful for in their life.
Obviously, expressing gratitude is the whole point of the holiday, but many people nowadays see this American tradition as an obstacle between them and the turkey and gravy. Others completely ignore the gratitude part of the day and are instead interested in the football game or the 65” 4K TV they plan to wrestle for on Black Friday. Still others feel like they have nothing to be thankful for — for them, 2019, with its ups and downs, felt like a punch in the gut.
I believe that, no matter what you’re going through, there is always a reason to be thankful. But not only that — being thankful might just be exactly what you need to do if you’re going through a tough time. Because gratitude is good for your mind, body and soul.
For example, researchers have found that having a grateful attitude can help strengthen someone’s immune system, lower blood pressure, improve sleep and motivate people to exercise regularly, which itself carries a host of health benefits. Practicing gratitude also has been associated with better quality of life for individuals who struggle with stress, anxiety and depression.
“Grateful people report higher levels of positive emotions, life satisfaction, vitality, optimism and lower levels of depression and stress,” write Robert A. Emmons, Phd., and Michael E. McCullough, Phd., who have done research on the role gratitude plays in a person’s attitude and well-being.
Emmons, who is described as “the world’s leading scientific expert on gratitude,” also writes on how gratitude can improve a person’s ability to cope with stress.
“There’s a number of studies showing that in the face of serious trauma, adversity, and suffering, if people have a grateful disposition, they’ll recover more quickly. I believe gratitude gives people a perspective from which they can interpret negative life events and help them guard against post-traumatic stress and lasting anxiety,” wrote Emmons in an article published in the University of California, Berkeley Greater Good Science Center’s Greater Good Magazine.
I imagine Emmons’ words could be helpful to many people. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, in 2017 an estimated 17.3 million adults in America experienced a major depressive episode. Even more alarming, suicide — often associated with mental illnesses such as depression — is the second leading cause of death for young adults and even teenagers, according to the Center for Disease Control.
Having gone through a strong bout of depression myself after prostate cancer surgery 10 years ago, I can tell you this illness can be crippling. Depression makes you feel as if you are dead inside.
Some of the classic symptoms are a sense of hopelessness and loneliness, loss of appetite and insomnia. I knew I was in trouble when I couldn’t eat and when I began to lose sleep.
It took me well over a year to come out of that dark valley. I know for some people, this is a burden they carry their entire lives.
During that time, I sought several forms of treatment for depression, including professional counseling and exercise, and surrounded myself with people I could confide in and who could encourage me.
One thing that was recommended to me by a counselor was keeping a gratitude journal. Every day, I would write three things I was thankful for in life.
This simple exercise lifts your sight out of the darkness and helps you see the truth around you: there are people who love and care for you, there’s purpose in life and God has not given up on you yet.
Gratitude therapy is now recognized as one effective way to treat anxiety, stress and depression, and more research is being conducted to understand the relationship between gratitude and mental and physical health. But the truth is, this is not a new concept. The Apostle Paul prescribed something very similar over 2,000 years ago:
“Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus,” Paul wrote (Philippians 4:6-7, NIV).
What amazes me is that Paul wrote these words while he was in prison in Rome. He knew that his faith was bigger than his circumstances, and this allowed him to pray to God with thanksgiving.
Now, I realize that depression does not go away by practicing a single exercise or saying one prayer, and in fact, there is no single cure for it. If you are suffering you may choose to seek professional counseling and care.
Still, I would encourage you to use Thanksgiving as an opportunity to practice gratitude. Think of a few things you can thank God for in your life. You may be surprised by how big of a difference it can make.