What is the single most important thing you can do to live a long, healthy life? You might think it has something to do with exercise, or eating right, or daily prayer. The last one, prayer, may be the closest to accurate.
It turns out that study after study has proven that the number one most significant contributor to a long life is gratitude. This makes Thanksgiving the most important holiday for people who are looking to stay alive for a while longer.
Gratitude and Happiness
One of the most frustrating aspects of the human condition is called hedonic adaptation, which means “no matter how positive of a change happens in their lives, humans’ expectations and desires rise to the point that they become dissatisfied with their new circumstances.”
According to a foundational paper by Dutch psychologist Nicol Frijda:
Adaptation to satisfaction can be counteracted by constantly being aware of how fortunate one’s condition is and of how it could have been otherwise, or actually was otherwise before–by rekindling impact through recollection and imagination. Enduring happiness seems possible, and it can be understood theoretically. However, note that it does not come naturally, by itself. It takes effort.
In other words, gratitude is the tool that allows you to step off the hedonic treadmill and achieve a lasting improvement in overall happiness. And that is true even if you have not recently had an upturn in your fortunes; even people who have just suffered a devastating loss can step back toward normalcy if they engage in active gratitude.
Gratitude and Relationships
Gratitude is a fundamentally pro-social emotion on multiple levels. Showing gratitude to someone you are not obligated to (such as a parent) shows investment in that relationship.
Feelings of gratitude increase the perception of belonging; and in the psychological world, perception of belonging is actually more powerful than objective markers of belonging (as any die-hard sports fan will attest). And in turn, being a part of a relationship (be it a family, a community, or whatever else) makes it easier to feel gratitude, creating a positive feedback loop.
Gratitude and Physical Health
It might seem improbable to some that an emotion like gratitude can actually improve your physical health, but the evidence is rock-solid. According to a seminal 2003 study entitled Counting Blessings vs. Burdens, engaging in active gratitude resulted in a variety of health benefits, including:
- 16% fewer physical symptoms (of whatever ailment they were suffering)
- 10% less physical pain
- 8% more sleep (and 25% better sleep quality)
- A widely varying but statistically significant decrease in blood pressure
Gratitude and Spiritual Health
In the case of the spiritual benefits of gratitude, science has shown that active gratitude results in:
- Increased optimism
- Reduced materialism
- Reduced self-centeredness
- Increased self-esteem
- Increased feelings of connection to the world at large
- All of these are vital elements to a spiritually fulfilling life in nearly every sacred tradition on Earth.
What Is Gratitude and How Do You Practice It?
Gratitude, simply put, is the act of acknowledging that something good has happened to you and that you are in some way indebted to the source of that good thing. It does not matter if the source is another person, a group, a government, karma, God, or just a happy coincidence.
The easiest way to practice active gratitude is with a gratitude journal. Spend just five minutes every evening writing down the one thing that happened that day that you are the most grateful for (some studies say a longer session once a week is actually more beneficial) will set you on a cycle of increasing gratitude that will provide all of the benefits listed above.
There are a couple important details to consider when you start your gratitude journal:
You must journal with the intention of becoming grateful. Just going through the motions will not do you any good.
Whenever possible, focus on people, relationships, and interactions that you are grateful for, not things or random events that are not related to anyone in particular.
How Does All This Relate to Our Aging Loved Ones?
This Thanksgiving, not only can you encourage your favorite senior to engage in a little active gratitude themselves, that is only half of the reason why gratitude is so powerful this time of year. The other half is expressing your gratitude for your honored elders; ideally, to their faces. Nothing says “You are a part of us” like saying “We are grateful for you.”
Your gratitude will help them enhance their gratitude, and that will make you a valuable source of physical, spiritual, and emotional health for your loved one. And that is something to really be thankful for.