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Beneficial Life Lessons Learned During the Holidays

Being Thankful and Giving Can Actually Improve Your Health

As we begin the New Year with resolutions to be healthier, one simple step is just to learn a lesson from the holiday season we all just enjoyed. New research is suggesting that a positive attitude can actually be positive for your health. Specifically, both the gratitude we foster at Thanksgiving, and the spirit of giving that follows for Christmas and Hanukkah, are important to maintain all year. Two Long Island professionals are working to prove the benefits.

An Attitude of Gratitude

At Hofstra University, Assistant Professor Jeffrey J. Froh, Psy.D. runs the Laboratory for Gratitude in Youth. From early on in his psychology studies, he was particularly interested in what was known as “positive psychology.” He especially took an interest in some pioneering work done on the subject of gratitude by Robert A. Emmons of the University of California, Davis and Michael E. McCullough of the University of Miami. While he was doing his initial studies, he learned that these men had been getting some amazing findings during their research on gratitude.

This research found that people who kept “gratitude journals” - taking just a few moments to focus on things in their life they could be thankful for each day – “exercised more regularly, reported fewer physical symptoms, felt better about their lives as a whole, and were more optimistic about the upcoming week compared to those who recorded hassles or neutral life events,” Emmons and McCullough reported in a 2003 paper.

They said that the people who kept gratitude lists were more likely to actually reach their personal goals as well, from sleeping better, having more energy and even boosting the immune system.

Young adults are among those who benefit the most from gratitude training during their trying transition into adulthood. Those who went through the studies found higher “alertness, enthusiasm, determination, attentiveness and energy compared to a focus on hassles or a downward social comparison,” the professors found.

Dr. Froh at Hofstra focuses on the effects of gratitude on young people. He even developed a gratitude curriculum for some Long Island schools to use. He told Healthy Living Digest that, as a result of gratitude work, kids went from showing behavior problems and bad moods to appreciating their teachers and school.  

“There is just a laundry list of benefits,” he said. “These kids are happier, more satisfied, more optimistic. They have better relationships with their family. They are more likely to give back to their community.”

For people of all ages, Froh shared some tips on how he and his family make gratitude a focus in their day-to-day life. Keeping a journal is key. And he recommends “shifting attention” to positive things.

“My son is four and we try to help him do that,” Froh shared. “We always ask him, ‘What was your favorite part of the day?’ or ‘What did you like most about going to someone’s house?’ We draw attention to the natural beauty out there. He is only four and numerous times now he has already learned to draw my attention to things – a beautiful sunset, or the leaves changing.”

Froh said you need to be a model for kids with actions as well as words. This ensures that you will actually be focusing your attitude, and you are really illustrating for them the right way to live. He tries to show thanks to important people, like the daycare people who do a great job taking care of his child. “I’ll try, in front of my son, to express my thanks – a bottle of wine, some coffee and donuts – to show I appreciate the work they do. Now he has learned to bring my wife a flower, or do other things to show people he appreciates them,” he said.

The professor admits cultivating a grateful attitude will be easier for some and harder for others. But those who benefit the most can be those going through hard times. For example, Emmons and McCullough even found that a group of adults with neuromuscular disease who took a 21-day gratitude intervention resulted in “greater amounts of high energy positive moods, a greater sense of feeling connected to others, more optimistic ratings of one’s life, and better sleep duration and sleep quality.”

Another piece of advice Froh offers from personal experience is slowing down a little. “If I do less, I can be mindful or where I am and savor the moment. It is easier to take the time to be grateful for what is happening.”

On the homefront, for couples, he reminds that there is nothing wrong with saying “thank you” for the little things. “Instead of feeling like, ‘Well she should cook dinner, I have been working all day,’ it personally strengthens your relationship if you say ‘Thank you for doing your role so well.’ A little note now and then or some flowers, or even just walking over and giving a hug can make a big difference.”

To get started on a grateful life, try getting a small journal and simply jotting down every day three or four things you are grateful for. Review the list as you go to bed, so you are focusing on things that are positive in your life. Froh said that it is work to do this, even in good times. In bad times, it can be very hard. But, if you are diligent, research shows that even those with major hardships or health problems get tremendous benefits from working on a positive attitude.

A Spirit of Giving

Another Long Island professor has been working to show that giving and helping can improve your health and happiness as well. Stephen G. Post, Ph.D., is professor of Preventive Medicine, head of the Division of Medicine in Society, and director of the Center for Medical Humanities, Compassionate Care and Bioethics at Stony Brook University School of Medicine.

Dr. Post, author of The Hidden Gifts of Helping, has studied the benefits and links between altruism, compassion, happiness, healing and health for nearly two decades. In “It’s good to be good: 2011 5th annual scientific report on health, happiness and helping others,” he points out that happiness, health and even longevity are benefits that have been reported in more than 50 investigations.

“In total, the research on the benefits of giving is extremely powerful, to the point that suggests health care professionals should consider recommending such activities to patients,” he said.

Post does remind people to do what is possible for them. “We need to balance our lives and should know our limitations when giving of our time and self to others, as overdoing may affect us negatively,” he said.

Dr. Post points out that remarkably, in a recent national survey of 4,582 American adults, 41 percent of Americans volunteered an average of two hours per week; 68 percent of volunteers agree that volunteering “has made me feel physically healthier;” and 96 percent say volunteering “makes people happier.” In addition, the survey results indicated that volunteers have less trouble sleeping, less anxiety, and better friendships and social networks.

“If you could create a pill with the same results as indicated by the survey of American volunteers, it would be a best seller overnight,” he remarked.

Post shares that some of the recurring concepts related to giving and health based on the review of the results of scientific studies include:

· Giving and even just thinking about giving in a spirit of generosity are linked to health and well-being.

· People who think too much about themselves and their own desires – or their own troubles – are not very happy.

· Helping is also a form of self-help when the giver has experienced the same problems as those receiving.

· Volunteerism has positive impacts on happiness, mood, self-esteem, physical and mental health.

· Giving can be a lifelong benefit for those who start young.

· Altruism is associated with a substantial reduction in mortality rates and is linked to longevity.

“After examining the many studies, it is difficult to dismiss the idea that it’s good to be good,” emphasizes Dr. Post. “The right ‘dose’ of good will varies from person to person and there is no detailed prescription for everyone, but the principle can at least be established scientifically.