5 Reasons Why Giving Thanks is Good for You

What we can learn from the happiest people we know.


In an article in Parade, psychologist and scientist Matt Killingsworth revealed findings from his Johnnie Walker-backed project, “Joynomics: The Study of Joy and Progress.” According to Killingsworth, the happiest people practice the following:

Chuseok is the autumn festival in Korea, a national celebration where people return to their hometowns to remember their ancestors, give thanks for the year’s blessings, and dine on traditional foods. One they enjoy is songpyeon, a steamed rice cake, symbolizing good wishes and dreams.

The human need to express gratitude seems to be a powerful and almost universal phenomenon. But why?

That’s exactly what Robert A. Emmons, Ph.D, a psychology professor at the University of California-Davis, and author of Gratitude Works!: A 21-Day Program for Creating Emotional Prosperity, set out to discover.

“For too long, the concept of gratitude had been ignored,” said Emmons, director of the university’s Emmons Lab, which creates and shares scientific data on gratitude, its causes, and its potential effects on human health and well-being. He calls it “the forgotten factor in the science of well-being."

The Mid-Autumn Festival – sometimes called the Moon Festival or the Day of Reunion – is a 3,000-year-old holiday that’s one of the most important in China and Vietnam. Elaborate lantern displays and “moon cakes” are all part of the celebration, which takes place on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month each year.

Emmons is one of the pioneers of research into the ways that gratitude affects our lives. To assess people’s levels of thankfulness, Emmons and his colleague Michael E. McCullough created a questionnaire that allowed them to compare “grateful people” to those who were less so. They also found ways to cultivate gratitude in test subjects — keeping a “gratitude journal,” counting one’s blessings, writing letters of thanks — then studied the changes that occurred as a result.

The results of his studies and others — both psychological and physiological — are fascinating. Here, five reasons why giving thanks is actually good for you.

  • Counting blessings boosts your health. Emmons’ and McCullough’s research showed that grateful people had less depression and stress, lower blood pressure, more energy, and greater optimism.
  • Slow down the aging clock. In older adults, Emmons and McCullough found, a daily practice of gratitude even slowed down some of the effects of neurodegeneration that often occurs as we age.
  • Put the brakes on stress. Cortisol is often called the “stress hormone,” and when our bodies produce too much, it can deplete the immune system and raise blood sugar levels. A study conducted at the Institute of HeartMath Research Center in California found that positive emotions like appreciation significantly lowered levels of cortisol.
  • Being thankful helps you bond. Research by U.S. psychologists Sara Algoe and Baldwin Way indicates that gratitude also can lead to better relationships. The explanation may be connected to increased production of oxytocin, sometimes called the “bonding hormone” because it fosters calm and security in relationships.
  • Gratefulness = good for the heart and waistline? According to research Emmons cites in his book Gratitude Works!, people with high blood pressure who actively express thankfulness “can achieve up to a 10 percent reduction in systolic blood pressure and decrease their dietary fat intake by up to 20 percent.” With Thanksgiving and other food-centered holidays coming up next month, that’s a potential benefit to be grateful for all year long.
Jewish people around the world celebrate Sukkot, a week-long joyous holiday for giving thanks, in the fall. They construct a temporary outdoor hut called a sukkah – with a roof made from unprocessed materials and decorated with garlands (made with fresh or plastic fruits, or other brightly colored decorations). During Sukkot, a blessing that incorporates the holiday’s two main symbols, the lulav (a leafy cluster that includes a palm frond and willow and myrtle branches) and the etrog (a citron) is said.

With benefits like these, maybe we should practice being thankful more than once a year. What else can people do to cultivate more gratitude in their lives?

“Make a commitment to write down at least three things you’re grateful for each day for 30 days. Make each one as specific as possible — there’s value in the details,” Emmons said. “It will shift your reality.”