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Thanksgiving - Let's Join In

I've always been a bit scornful of American's celebrating Thanksgiving. It feels stereotypically American – over the top, effusive, a bit sickly sweet (no offence meant!) – but lately I've been wondering if perhaps us Brits should adopt it too? Obviously not by giving thanks for the same things as our US cousins, but being thankful and showing gratitude for all that we have.

Thanksgiving is of course gratitude by another name and as we've said before, feeling positive is just one of the benefits of being grateful or thankful. A growing body of scientific research is highlighting its social, physical and psychological benefits. Among other things, it increases happiness, improves sleep, strengthens relationships and reduces anxiety and depression. And it's been shown to boost the immune system, lower blood pressure, improve recovery from illness and even encourage people to exercise more.

This Thanksgiving, people all over America will reflect on what they're thankful for. But gratitude shouldn't be reserved for one day a year, or for just one nation. It's something we should be mindful of every single day, says Louisa Jewell, an expert on positive psychology, which is the scientific study of psychological well-being.

"If you can make (gratitude) a daily practice it's transformative," says Jewell, president of the Canadian Positive Psychology Association, which aims to improve the psychological health of Canadians by sharing research and ways to apply it.

Her comments are echoed by Robert Emmons, a psychology professor at the University of California, Davis, who is the world's leading scientific expert on gratitude.

"Gratitude works. It heals, energises, and transforms lives," he says. "When life is going well, it allows us to celebrate and magnify the goodness. When life is going badly, it provides a perspective by which we can view life in its entirety.

"People who live under an 'aura of pervasive thankfulness' reap the rewards of grateful living. Conversely, those who fail to feel gratitude cheat themselves out of their experience of life," says Emmons, author of Thanks! How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier.

In one study, by Emmons and University of Miami psychologist Mike McCullough, participants were randomly-assigned to three groups and asked to keep a weekly journal. One group wrote about five things they were grateful for, another about five daily hassles, and the third group wrote about five events that affected them. In addition, everyone kept a daily journal about their mood, physical health and overall views about life.

At the end of 10 weeks, those who were grateful felt better about their lives, were 25 per cent happier, reported fewer health complaints and exercised for longer periods, nearly 1.5 hours more per week. "The evidence cannot be ignored: If you want to sleep more soundly, count blessings, not sheep," writes Emmons.

Another way to practice gratitude, which we've also mentioned before, is to write a letter of thanks to someone who has been especially kind and deliver it in-person. Studies by the late psychology professor Martin Seligman at the University of Pennsylvania showed participants still felt good a month later.

We think the evidence is pretty compelling, so perhaps next time we're looking for a new public holiday to celebrate we should petition for a "Gratitude Day", but in the meantime, let's start by being more thankful and showing our gratitude every day.

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