Another Serving of Gratitude, Please!
“Go ahead! Eat whatever you want on Thanksgiving Day! Forget sticking to your diet. Pull up to the table and savor the delicious turkey feast with your family and friends.”
I know, this is not the typical holiday eating advice you might expect to hear from a certified wellness professional like myself. It may even border on being irresponsible–even reprehensible! But this month’s Glen Ivy Challenge, “Practicing Gratitude,” got me thinking: If people who practice gratitude on a regular basis are happier as studies suggest they are, does that mean they are healthier too? And if that’s the case, maybe the practice of gratitude during the upcoming holiday season is a better wellness strategy than depriving yourself of your favorite foods or counting the calories in a slice of pumpkin pie.
As it turns out, the answer to my question is, “Yes!” According to Dr. Robert Emmonds, a psychology professor at University of California Davis and author of Thanks! How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier, practicing gratitude or “a felt sense of wonder, thankfulness, and appreciation for life,” is not only good for your mental health, but also improves your physical health as well. Participants in his gratitude studies showed improvements in their health status like sleeping longer hours and experiencing a better quality of sleep. They also had fewer symptoms of malaise such as headaches, nausea, and pain. The most exciting aspect of his research though, showed that these individuals also made better lifestyle choices. Emmonds explains, “Grateful people take better care of themselves and engage in more protective health behaviors like regular exercise, a healthy diet, and regular physical examinations.” In other words, people who recognize and feel appreciation for life’s gifts choose to take better care of themselves.
Finding the motivation to choose healthier behaviors is at the heart of lasting lifestyle change. That’s why the “gratitude approach” to better health makes sense to me. Many people I talk to about beginning an exercise program or eating a healthier diet say, “I know what I need to do, I just don’t do it!” They feel at a loss as to why they repeatedly sabotage their diets or can’t stick to their program. Moreover, their confusion is frequently laced with negative self talk that eventually becomes a barrier to their success.
By its very nature, gratitude practice requires you to perform an about face away from focusing on what isn’t working, to an appreciation for what is. Feeling bad about not going to the gym because you were held up at work, turns into feeling good about the twenty minute walk you took when you got home. And as Emmonds points out, this mental shift gives you a positive framework for living life where you are able to take control over your happiness levels.
So, with the busy holiday season upon us, and those pesky New Years resolutions following close behind, why not take a different approach this year. Lay the foundation for a year of better choices by trying my gratitude practice with a “healthy twist” during the month ahead:
- Connect with the good in your day. Start a simple gratitude journal today with the tips we provided in our recent blog post, Creating a Gratitude Journal. Try including a few entries that recognize the healthy choices you have made during your day–no matter how small.
- Connect with a sense of appreciation and thankfulness for your health and your ability to move about and do all the things you love to do. Begin to think about the healthy choices you can make in the New Year to improve your health status.
- Connect with your support system. Who are the people around you–family, friends and co-workers–who can become part of your wellness team next year? Just think, if they are on your team, you are on their team. Two healthy people for the price of one!
OK, gratitude practice won’t eliminate all the calories on your Thanksgiving plate. But approaching life with a positive outlook and a spirit of thanksgiving could mean that taking better care of yourself in the New Year comes more naturally to you. So, while I did’t really mean “Eat whatever you what this Thanksgiving,” go ahead and enjoy the turkey dressing and sweet potato pie. Just make sure there is a healthy dose of gratitude served up in between.