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Published November 23, 2011, 11:30 PM

Mathison: Power of gratitude affects daily lives, health

Studies show there is a measurable benefit to counting your blessings and looking on the bright side on a regular basis, not just at holiday time.

By: Dr. Susan Mathison, Areavoices.com blogger, INFORUM

“I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought, and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.” – G.K. Chesterton 19th Century writer for the Illustrated London Times and Daily News

For many of us, Thanksgiving is our favorite holiday, with simple pleasures like good conversation and full bellies.

And between the turkey and the pumpkin pie, some may take time for reflecting on all that they are truly thankful for. Studies show there is a measurable benefit to counting your blessings and looking on the bright side on a regular basis, not just at holiday time.

Robert Emmons, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis has long been interested in the role gratitude plays in physical and emotional well-being, so much so that it has become his life’s defining work.

Emmons and fellow psychology professor Michael McCullough of the University of Miami, took three groups of volunteers and randomly assigned them to focus on one of three things each week: hassles, ordinary life events, and things for which they were grateful.

The first group concentrated on everything that went wrong or was irritating to them, such as “the jerk who cut me off on the highway.” The second group recalled recent everyday events, as in “I went shoe shopping.” The third group focused on situations they felt enhanced their lives, as in “My boyfriend is so kind and caring – I’m lucky to have him.”

The results? The participants in the last group were much happier. They saw their lives in favorable terms. They reported fewer negative physical symptoms such as headaches or colds, and they were active in ways that were good for them. They spent almost an hour and a half more per week exercising than those who focused on hassles. Those who had an attitude of gratitude had a higher quality of life.

The difference was noticeable to friends and family. The grateful group “even seemed to be perceived as more helpful toward others, going out on a limb to help people.” Emmons was surprised by this result. “This is not just something that makes people happy, like a positive-thinking/optimism kind of thing. A feeling of gratitude really gets people to do something, to become more pro-social, more compassionate.” This did not happen in either of the other two groups.

Emmons and McCullough then took their study, published in 2003, one step further. Rather than focus on hassles or blessings on just a weekly basis, they rounded up college students to do it every day. The researchers asked for specific personal details as well: drinking habits, required medications, quality of sleep, etc. They also asked volunteers to compare themselves with others: Are you better or worse off?

The study found that people who were consciously grateful felt better about their lives, were more optimistic and enthusiastic and more energetic.

Another science experiment: Psychologist Alice M. Isen of Cornell University found that doctors who were thanked and given a small token of appreciation for participating in a discussion about complex medical cases processed the facts more methodically and came to a correct diagnosis more so than the group who wasn’t thanked.

Isen’s hypothesis is that the good feelings generated by something as simple as an expression of appreciation intervene in the release of dopamine, the chemical in the brain associated with happiness. As Isen explains, dopamine is released when people are feeling good or are excited by a challenge. It activates the parts of the brain in which complex thinking and conflict resolution are thought to be headquartered.

Putting the power of gratitude into action takes just a few minutes a day, but it requires consistency and dedication.

Record your thanks, ideally in a journal or notebook.

Take a moment during the day – right before bedtime is usually best – to jot down three things that happened that day for which you are grateful. Anything that made you feel uplifted, that brought a smile to your face or your heart, or will contribute toward your future happiness, works.

After each situation or event for which you feel thankful, write down why this was good for you.

Also, make a note of who, if anyone, played a role in what you’ve recalled for the day and how that person had an impact on your life.

This gratitude practice makes you look at life in a positive, concrete way. It forces you to focus on what went right instead of the inevitable things that went wrong, and enhances your self-esteem.

Norville ends with a quote from Barbara Fredrickson, a psychologist at the University of North Carolina, “Gratitude has the potential to change everything from its ordinary state to being a gift.”

Now, pass the gravy, and thank you very much!

Dr. Susan Mathison founded Catalyst Medical Center in Fargo and created PositivelyBeautiful.com to share her thoughts on beauty, wellness and life.