Thanksgiving Table Talk—The Science of Gratitude, A Sure Way to Save the World!

How many times we’ve been told to count our blessings? Every family gathered at the Thanksgiving table this year will invite each member from youngest on up to share something they are thankful for—we laugh, we sometimes hide a tear at those that are most touching.  It’s an emotional few moments for sure.  That’s because there’s pure power in being truly grateful.  No kidding, there’s actual science to back this up. Read on—you’ll be able to amaze and astound your family and friends with this great conversation starter because the best part is it’s a non-partisan approach to world peace! Or family peace, or at least personal peace, because it all starts within each and every one of us, no matter our age, beliefs, etc. etc. 

This year, here at Residences Senior Living, we are so VERY GRATEFUL for: 

  • Our amazing and dedicated staff for enduring with love and compassion. 
  • All of our residents’ ability to adapt, smile and love. 
  • Warm friendly in-person visits from families and friends. 

We did the research. But you can do it, too. Go ahead, Google “the science of gratitude.”  It’s amazing how much scientific research including psychological as well as neurological brain imaging has been done over the past several years to investigate what most of us first heard as children from parents or grandparents, from Sunday school or teachers. One site that was an interesting, relatable read is the source for the information we found to share here: which includes many articles that delves deeper into the subject.  Here’s what we found most valuable to get started on the subject of An Attitude of Gratitude. 

First, have you ever noticed how the happiest people you know have the attitude of gratitude? Those who are experiencing depression tend to be trapped by negative emotions. Just telling them to think positively isn’t working so well for them, try as they might. The research shows there are reasons for this and there is actual action to take that will definitely make a definite difference—seriously, in their brain’s functioning! That’s good news, isn’t it, indeed! 

The Greater Good Science Center (GGSC) at The University at Berkley in California did a research experiment and identified Four Science- Based Insights for a Meaningful Life.  The psychologists created three groups of students who came with mental health concerns.  One wrote letters of gratitude, one wrote about their deepest feelings from a negative experience, one group was not asked to write. Find all the details about the experiment on the GGSC site. The key take-aways we found are truly exciting and summarized as follows under their Four Insights. 

  1. Gratitude unshackles us from negative emotions. 
  • The gratitude letters had a greater percentage of positive emotional words compared to those who wrote about negative experience. They used pronoun “we” whereas those who were struggling more used “I” and their mental health struggle was not as bad.  
  • Writing is an action one can take that changes attitude (see 4th Insight). 
  • The lack of negative words shifts attention away from “toxic emotions such as envy and resentment.”  
  • When you write about how grateful you are to others it becomes more difficult to ruminate on your negative experiences. 
  1. Gratitude helps even if you don’t share it. 
  • Only 23% of the letter writers shared/sent or gave the letters to others, yet they had the benefits of improved mental well-being. 
  • The act of writing the letter is enough to shift focus away from negative feelings and thoughts. 
  1. Gratitude benefits take time. 
  • The study was not sure why, but it was noted that the results of the letter writing were not immediate but definitely occurred by the time they were measured four weeks later, and the benefits were even greater 12 weeks later! It was mentioned that it takes time for a shift in the brain to “kick in.” 
  1. Gratitude has lasting effects on the brain. 
  • The study displays details about specific brain changes; most important is that distinctive change was noted re: gratitude and giving to a cause vs. giving to a cause out of guilt or desire. Most amazing! This suggests the grateful are also more attentive to how they express gratitude. 

One of the most insightful reflections made by a psychologist fostering the study was, in short, that we tend to spend much of our time and energy going after the things we currently don’t have but think we should have.  His belief is that gratitude “reverses our priorities” to help us appreciate the people and things we do have.  Dr. Robert Emmons is the Co-director of GGSC and leader of the Gratitude Project. His in-depth articles are available on their website and are practical as well as fascinating. 

Here’s another reflection he has garnered from The Gratitude Project—the opposite of gratitude is entitlement—that you are owed because you are special.  He says for those individuals who have that belief,” …counting blessings will be ineffective because grievances will always outnumber gifts.” 

Dr. Emmons believes the concept that we did not create ourselves (whether you believe it is evolution, God, or your parents) is the “antidote” for entitlement.  He also admonishes that humans are never self-sufficient but rather always in some form, dependent on others—whether it is for growing food, healing illness or injury, and needing love, whether from family, partners, friends, or pets.  He believes we should see our interconnectedness. (What a concept…)!  Our roles must shift back and forth, being a giver/receiver.  “The humble person says that life is a gift to be grateful for, not a right to be claimed.” 

The Editor of the GGSC newsletter is Jeremy Adam Smith, who writes articles for their newsletter and shares thought-provoking reflections on many contemporary issues. His style is lighter but nonetheless food for thought and he builds on many of Dr. Emmon’s concepts. He shares these “6 Habits of Grateful People” and says that gratitude is the tool we use to remind us of “the good stuff.” Gratitude doesn’t eliminate problems or make threats disappear. Research shows that we threaten ourselves with worry, and that’s when gratitude, especially when formed as a habit, can help us survive the bad times and can actually help us survive the bad times and be even happier in the good times.  

The list of the 6 Habits of the Grateful and a brief description of each concept: 

  1. Once in a while they think about death. They take a step back and imagine the end of their own lives or loss of someone, which leads to becoming more grateful for what they have. 
  1. They take time to smell the roses. Savoring positive experiences, even physical experiences like eating, “makes them stickier in your brain.” Rituals like praying before a meal, or whatever slows you down to be more mindfully aware that you are eating actually makes the food tastier! 
  1. They take the good things as gifts, not as a birthright. Obviously the observation made by Dr. Emmons as well. 
  1. They are grateful for people in their lives, not just things. Noticing how a person helped you, acknowledging the effort it took for a specific act and expressing genuine thanks, actually engages biological systems for trust and affection, right alongside circuits for pleasure and reward, according to scientific research. Think of how this helps “pay it forward” and how this changes relationships (hence, the world.) 
  1. They “mention the pancakes”.  What he means is, be specific to come across as genuine. 
  1. They “thank outside the box. Another concept from Dr. Emmons is that it’s easy to feel grateful for the good times/things but gratitude can help you through the bad times/things that happen. He advises that processing a life experience through gratitude doesn’t mean denying negativity, it means realizing that we have power to transform an obstacle. We can, through genuine gratitude, begin to see the potential gain.  

 That’s certainly much “food for thought” we’re offering for your Thanksgiving Table talk about the science of gratitude.  Let us know how you fared this year as your friends and family considered discussing the science of gratitude.