Usually, we look at Thanksgiving as a holiday started by the pilgrimage of our ancestors who celebrated a successful harvest in the new land. Being grateful this day is usually the tradition. It may also be of interest to know that if you take the words, “Thanks” and “Giving”, you also have two primary keys to improved mental health. As is oftentimes the case, those who feel over-whelmed with negativity easily lose perspective on the part of their lives that they otherwise might feel more grateful.
Gratitude is a choice, and it isn’t necessarily easy. In the end, you have to choose between being thankful or remaining in the habit of reveling in negative emotions. Of course, you can remain luke-warm with gratitude by reflecting on it during special occasions, like Thanksgiving; but you may be sure that in the midst of mental health problems, negative emotions will remain dominant.
If you do indeed choose gratitude, there is increased research showing that gratitude exuberates both physical health as well as mental and emotional well-being. According to the National Institute of Mental Health’s research and numerous other resources, gratitude expands self-esteem. As it is difficult to blend depression or resentment with a grateful heart, bad thoughts take a back seat while gratitude takes the lead. Similarly, gratitude expels worries and ruminations with a growing habit of thanksgiving and a focus on others. Gratitude also helps calm down stress and improves symptoms of trauma. It also supports and encourages resilience while fighting off the worst of times. Of course, this doesn’t mean that with gratitude, there are no more mental health issues, but it does help to manage them better.
Gratitude opens the door to more and truer relationships through appreciation, cooperation, enhanced empathy, reduced aggression and acknowledging others’ contributions. In addition, gratitude improves physical health with a tendency to experience fewer aches and pains, increased motivation towards a healthier self and an overall focus on feeling healthier. Another advantage of gratitude is that it helps people sleep better, just by jotting down a few grateful sentiments before bed. Being grateful is a way we can back away from a place of lacking to a place of contentedness.
So, if gratitude spawns enhanced empathy as is implied with the word, “Thanksgiving”, giving is also a natural next step for improved mental health. Within society, many of us think well-being in terms of what we have, such as our level of comfort, or our income, or our possessions, or our status as the markers. But evidence shows that what we do and the way we think actually have a far more meaningful impact on mental health and wellbeing. According to neuroscience, increased activation and strengthening of certain parts of the brain occur when we give to others. So, “Thanks” and “Giving” may be the way to go to improve our mental well-being.
Claudia A. Liljegren, MSW< LICSW