If you’re anything like me, the Thanksgiving season does not magically produce a more thankful version of myself. In fact, it usually yields the opposite. I don’t know if it’s the shorter days with less sunshine or the never-ending end-of-year task list, but Thanksgiving seems to trigger even more stress, anxiety and bouts of depression. So, for many of us, we may just be trying to make it through.
But this year, as I find myself falling into that same cycle, it begs the question, why should I give thanks? More specifically, why should I give thanks when I don’t feel thankful?
Both Thanksgiving and Christmas are meant to be reminders of God’s goodness and His great provision, a reason to give thanks. Just as the Old Testament feasts and festivals were intended to refocus the attention of God’s people to remember all that God had done, we can use Thanksgiving to realign our minds and hearts to Him.
In Scripture, we see examples of gratitude for the Lord and for others, in times of blessing and also in times of stress and suffering (1 Chronicles 16:34, 1 Thessalonians 5:18, Psalm 9:1). I bet you can probably find a hundred more biblical references to “giving thanks.”
But did you know that research now confirms what Scripture has told us all along? When we “give thanks to the Lord,” it blesses both the Lord and us!
Beyond our spiritual health, here are five ways research now tells us that giving thanks is good for your mental, physical and relational health:
1. It increases happiness and decreases depression.
Robert Emmons, a leading gratitude researcher, has confirmed a link between gratitude and an increase in happiness and reduction of depression. “Gratitude blocks toxic emotions, such as envy, resentment, regret and depression, which can destroy our happiness,” Emmons said. “It’s impossible to feel envious and grateful at the same time.” Thankfulness can actually act as a defense against negative thoughts that accompany depression.
2. It gives you better sleep.
Gratitude is shown to have improved sleep for 76% of individuals who had insomnia. With chronic sleep problems affecting 50-80% of individuals with mental health difficulties (versus 10-18% of the general population), getting better sleep is vital to improving both our physical and mental health.
3. It lowers stress levels.
Gratitude can also reduce levels of stress hormones (cortisol) by 23%! Chronic high levels of cortisol is linked with increased risk of depression and mental illness. But when we take time to express gratitude, stress levels lower and keep us healthy!
4. It contributes to resilience.
A study in 2006 revealed that Vietnam War veterans with higher levels of gratitude had lower rates of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In addition, a 2003 study discovered that gratitude was a key contributor to resilience after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. For those who have experienced trauma, thanksgiving can play a significant part in overcoming trauma and building resilience.
5. It helps build friendships.
Did you know that a study found that thanking a new acquaintance can actually make them more likely to want to be your friend? Never underestimate the power of a simple ‘thank you’ and the wonderful friendships that might result from it!
But what do we do when we're in the midst of depression or anxiety and it feels difficult to give thanks? Here are some quick, tangible ways that make thanksgiving easy.
KEEP IT SIMPLE
Thanksgiving doesn't need to involve crafts or extravagant gifts or gestures. A simple text message, phone call, email or short note can be the perfect way to express thanks for someone in your life.
KEEP IT SPECIFIC
Instead of thanking someone generally for being a good friend or a good family member, take note of something specific that you can thank them for. For example, thank a friend for an encouragement or compliment they shared with you recently, thank a waiter or waitress at a restaurant for his or her speedy service or thank a family member for giving you a ride to an appointment.
KEEP IT STEADY
The Thanksgiving holiday focuses our attention on gratitude, but a habit of year-round thanksgiving will keep these health benefits coming far beyond the holidays! Keep practicing ways to say 'thank you' in simple and specific ways past Thanksgiving. For example, keep a gratitude journal where you write down three things a day for which you are grateful.
God loves you and His grace never runs out. So even when our mental health symptoms make it difficult for us to feel thankful, we can rest in His grace and give thanks that His love for us is not dependent upon anything we do! Thank goodness, right?!
Executive Director of Programs & Marketing, The Grace Alliance