With the season for giving thanks upon us, it’s a good time of year to remind ourselves of the stack of studies showing that consciously counting your blessings will not only make you happier, but it will also physically rewire your brain so that it’s permanently easier to notice and enjoy the good things in life. (Or, if you don’t want to take science’s word for it, here’s LeAnn Rimes explaining how gratitude transformed her thinking).
But recognizing the amazing ability of gratitude to support mental health begs the question: what sort of gratitude practice is best? Should you go around the table this Thanksgiving and list what you’re thankful for? Should you jot down all that’s positive in your day?
These interventions certainly will only do you good, but if you really want to supercharge your gratitude practice this holiday (or any time of the year), science suggests you shouldn’t just give thanks, you should actually go out and say thanks too.
Saying thanks beats giving thanks.
When scientists want to know whether one medicine works better than another, they give one group of patients the new innovation and another control group the old-standby and then see which group shows the most improvement. It’s a technique that works with gratitude practices too.
When a group of Irish researchers wanted to know what type of gratitude practice has the greatest impact they recruited 200 participants who were assigned one of three different positivity-boosting interventions. One was tasked with writing a standard gratitude list each day. One wrote gratitude lists but also chose one person who appeared on those lists each week to reach out and thank. A final control group just wrote down their thoughts daily (which has also been shown to have mental health benefits).
Who came out of the experiment feeling the happiest and most positive? “Right after finishing three weeks of journaling, the gratitude-expressing group was faring the best: Their negative emotions decreased more than those in the other groups, and they also felt less depressed and more emotionally balanced than when they started,” reports UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center.
The effect was particularly pronounced for the saddest of the participants, those who had gone into the study with the most depressive symptoms. It is important to note, however, that three months on these effects had faded for all the participants.
A simple Thanksgiving lesson
The takeaway here is dead simple and just in time for your favorite turkey-centric holiday: if you want to get the biggest happiness boost possible from the season of thankfulness, don’t just list out your blessings, actually do something – a note, a hug, a few kind words – to actually thank a fellow human being.
Even better, keep up the habit the rest of the year. As this study illustrates, the effects of any sort of gratitude practice aren’t lasting as it’s easy to slip back into negativity. To keep up your positive outlook, put in a little effort whether there is turkey on the table or not.
So schedule yourself a weekly reminder to thank someone who’s made your life a little brighter. They’ll feel awesome, and according to this research, so will you.