Gratitude Is Good For You, Science Says, So Thanksgiving Is Good For More Than Just Scarfing Down Turkey

I don't know about you, but my Thanksgivings are always a little light on the "giving thanks" and rather heavier on the "shoveling food down until I develop a third-trimester food baby." Apparently, though, my priorities should be the other way around — according to science, gratitude is good for you in terms of mental and physical health. Does it count if I'm grateful for my ability to pack away half a turkey and a veritable mountain of stuffing before my siblings and cousins get to it? No? Fine. (But I maintain that these are important life skills.)

In honor of Turkey Day, PBS Digital Studios' Brain Craft took a look at the science behind gratitude, and according to host Vanessa Hill, it's a more complicated subject than you'd think. Gratitude, you see, isn't what psychologists call a basic emotion; as Hill points out in the video, it doesn't have a corresponding facial expression the way joy or sadness do. However, recent research has taken to categorizing gratitude as a "moral" emotion like guilt and empathy, a finding that is further bolstered by studies showing that gratitude activates parts of the brain associated with morality and value judgments.

Hill then cites a study showing that people who kept records of things they were grateful for ended up happier after a week of journaling than people who wrote about other things — although the Daily Dot points out that this effect disappeared by the time researchers checked back in three months later. Gratitude can even affect your physical health, as demonstrated by a study showing that the emotion is associated with better sleep and less fatigue, possibly because it reduces stress. In fact, a recent study from the University of California found that people who reported being more grateful had better heart health.

So, counting your blessings can lead to, well, more blessings. But how do you stay grateful? According to the video, research shows that some people are simply predisposed to feel more gratitude than others: One study found that people who possessed a gene linked to increased levels of oxytocin, a.k.a. the "love hormone," are also more likely to report feeling thankful toward their significant others. Hill postulates that gratitude, therefore, functions as a social emotion.

Even if you're not naturally inclined toward gratitude, there are still plenty of ways to work the emotion into your life: Keep a journal of things that make you happy, try not to dwell on negative thoughts, and looking for the silver lining even on bad days are just a few ways to practice gratitude. For instance, I'm incredibly grateful that I have a leftover Thanksgiving turkey sandwich waiting for me in the fridge right now... Unless my relatives got there first.

Check out the video below:

BrainCraft on YouTube

Images: Sharon Sinclair/Flickr, Brain Craft/YouTube