It’s a good time of year to stop and give thanks.

Last Friday was Veteran’s Day, when we as a nation stopped to give thanks for our armed forces. The men and women who serve and have served sacrifice to protect and preserve our Constitutional freedoms. We may not always agree with each other, but our servicemen and women have bled and died to protect our right to disagree.

This coming Thursday, we’ll commemorate that first Thanksgiving of 1621. When the pilgrims arrived at Plymouth, it was too late in the year to plant crops. Of the original 102 of them, only 44 survived the first winter. But when the Mayflower returned to Europe in the spring, not one of those 44 survivors abandoned Plymouth; they stayed, they planted, and they made a life for themselves. When harvest time came the following year, they knew the worst of it was behind them, and they held a great feast to give thanks to God for His provision. He’s provided abundantly for every one of us, too—and that’s why we celebrate.

As it happens, giving thanks is not only a “good thing to do,” fostering improved social connections and rendering us more likable to others–it also makes us both happier and healthier.

GRATITUDE AND YOUR OVERALL HEALTH

In his book, “Thanks! How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier,” Robert Emmonds cites that pessimism is linked to shorter life spans. In one study, participants scoring high on optimism had a 55% lower risk of death from all causes than those counted as pessimistic.

This study suggests that the reason for this may be either a direct link between optimism and immune function, and/or a link between optimism and health-promoting activities, such as eating better, exercising, etc. This makes sense, of course: the happier we are, the more likely we are to take care of ourselves.

My suspicion is that gratitude assists the immune system because, from a physiologic standpoint, hope and optimism decrease levels of harmful stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline

GRATITUDE AND DEPRESSION

In “Thanks!,” Emmonds describes one study he conducted over a 10-week period, which randomly assigned its participants into three groups. One group wrote down five things they were grateful for the previous week, one group wrote down five stressors or hassles they’d encountered the previous week, and one group wrote down five neutral events that affected them (without specifying whether the events were positive or negative). At the end of 10 weeks, the gratitude group was deemed to be 25% happier than the other two groups. (The gratitude group also exercised more and reported fewer physical ailments.)

This study also demonstrates that gratitude is inversely correlated with depression in patients already struggling with chronic illness of arthritis or Irritable Bowel Disease (IBD).

One more: this study demonstrates that gratitude fosters increased social support, and protects people from depression and from negative stress resulting from a major life transition.

THE UPSHOT: WAYS TO PRACTICE GRATITUDE

If you’re looking to incorporate thankfulness into your own daily routine, here are a few ways to do so:

  • Keep a gratitude journal. First thing in the morning or last thing at night, write down five things you’re grateful for. (It doesn’t have to be five—but it’s a good place to start.)
  • Remember where you’ve come from. The contrast between where you used to be and where you are now can help you to appreciate the blessings you once lacked, but now enjoy.
  • Record your prayers. This is a great way to remember where you’ve come from. So many of us forget that we ever had a need at all after it’s been met!

MY THANKS TO YOU

I am so thankful that I get to practice medicine. I’m grateful that I get to hear people’s stories, and that people trust me with their “stuff.” I get to walk alongside my patients on their healing journeys, celebrate successes and mourn tragedies, while offering the wisdom God has given me to help others on their journeys to wholeness.

To those of you who are my patients—thank you for trusting me with your health. To my readers: thank you for letting me share what I’ve learned with you. It is an honor and a privilege to serve you!

In Health,

Dr. Lauren

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