By Francisco R. Velázquez, M.D., S.M., FCAP
The origin of Thanksgiving dates back to 1621 and the harvest feast celebrated by the Plymouth settlers and the Wampanoag people. The holiday was celebrated sporadically until 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed Thursday, Nov. 26, to be a National Day of Thanksgiving. Since then it has been celebrated annually, and in 1942 Congress formalized the fourth Thursday in November as the holiday.
Although not necessarily related to the harvest in modern times, it is still considered the time to celebrate the blessings of the year. Gratitude and graciousness are at the core of Thanksgiving.
What if gratitude and graciousness could improve your physical and mental health? Would we be more inclined to focus on the positive around our lives? I know that none of our lives are perfect, and for some the course of the day is more challenging or complicated than for others. I have been told since childhood that you never know the pain or grief that may be behind a smile. Thus, be kind to all around you, and be grateful for all you are and have.
What is gratitude? The Latin root of the word is “gratus,” which loosely translated can mean grateful or thankful. It has commonly been defined as a feeling of appreciation for something or someone’s actions and the impact on our lives.
Many researchers use what is known as the “life orientation approach” which incorporates the gratitude that comes from appreciating the kindness of others together with the gratitude that comes from habitual focus on the positive aspects of life. Gratitude is a key component of the positive psychology movement, which has gained momentum over the past 20 years. This area of psychology focuses on how to help human beings prosper and lead healthy, happy lives. While many other branches of psychology have traditionally focused on dysfunction and abnormal behavior, positive psychology is centered on helping people become happier. With this perspective in mind, gratitude can be defined as a state of thankfulness or a state of being grateful. This is an area of significant study and research, which continues to evolve.
There is a considerable body of neuroscience research on gratitude, its impact on brain chemistry and function and how this can translate to mental or physical effects. With the intentional practice of gratitude, scientists have postulated that this activity modulates key brain areas associated with mood, motivation and resilience. It is known to stimulate the region in the brainstem where dopamine is produced. Activity is also described in the anterior cingulate cortex which has a role in key cognitive processes such as motivation, decision making, empathy, emotion and impulse control.
Scientists have reported increases in the neurotransmitter serotonin, which plays a key role in body functions such as mood, sleep, wound healing and others. The effects of serotonin are longer lasting than other substances that also increase with gratitude such as dopamine, commonly referred to as the “happy hormone.” Dopamine increases when we experience something pleasurable and provides a short-term feeling of happiness or well-being.
Research shows that gratitude is associated with reduced stress, better sleep, improved self-care, and improved relationships with others. Many other benefits of thankfulness are said to include better impulse control (which can reduce overeating), and lower risk of depression, anxiety disorders and phobias. It can also result in decreased risks for alcohol or nicotine dependence and substance use.
Research with older adults has demonstrated that activities such as daily gratitude writing exercises positively impact feelings of loneliness and resulted in a decrease in reported physical health symptoms. Other literature points to potential decreases in the risk for heart disease, decreased levels of inflammation biomarkers on patients with congestive heart failure and possible decreases in the risks for a heart attack.
Other investigators have reported lower levels of hemoglobin A1c, which is an indicator of glucose control, and typically monitored in patients with diabetes. Improved immune function, increased productivity and a boost in self-confidence have all been associated with higher levels of optimism, positivity and thankfulness.
Those who are consistently grateful are identified as being more patient, optimistic, more forgiving, less materialistic and having higher energy levels, as well as being more resilient.
Granted more research is needed, but given all the positive attributes of gratefulness, isn’t it worth trying to be grateful for all we are and have? I am grateful for the opportunity to share these thoughts with you.
Francisco R. Velázquez, M.D., S.M., FCAP, is the health officer for the Spokane Regional Health District.