What are you thankful for? Taking time to think about the question can actually be good for your health.
"Research suggests that individuals who feel grateful experience lower blood pressure, improved immune functions, recover more quickly from illness, and can more effectively cope with stress," said Shilagh Mirgain, PhD, a health psychologist with UW Health. "Gratitude has one of the strongest links to mental health, more so than even optimism."
And the benefits can be life-long. A sense of gratitude can reduce the lifetime risk for depression, anxiety and even substance abuse disorders.
But, what does it mean to experience gratitude?
"What we're talking about is the appreciation for what is valuable and meaningful in life," Mirgain said. "And the first step is to begin creating an awareness of what you are grateful for in life."
Mirgain explained that cultivating a sense of gratitude involves actively noticing the good things that are occurring in life.
"Feeling grateful allows us to connect to those things that make us feel glad to be alive," she said.
Some individuals might refer to the practice as "counting your blessings," but it is essentially taking the time to acknowledge what is going right for you and your family.
Keep track of your gratitude
Whether you use a journal, share on Facebook or write on a slip of paper you place in a special jar, Mirgain suggests taking time each day to write down three to five small things for which you are grateful.
"Research shows that writing down what you are grateful for is more effective than just thinking the thoughts," she said.
Mirgain recommends starting out with a daily practice because it is a powerful way to shift perspective. Once you get going, you can transition to at least once a week. The effects remain just as powerful. And, you don't have to be grateful for significant things.
"It can be small things like your husband doing the dishes or a child picking up toys," Mirgain said. "Or, of course, major ones like getting a promotion or a child speaking her first words."
Finding the positive
As Ella Fitzgerald sang, "Into each life a little rain must fall." At some point everyone is confronted with difficult and painful situations. And while we can't always control what happens, we can control how we react.
"A sense of gratitude can actually help us cope with stress and trauma," said Mirgain. "And from the challenges, we can truly learn a tremendous amount about ourselves."
When dealing with a challenging situation, Mirgain recommends asking two basic questions, "Ask yourself what you have learned from the situation, and how have you become stronger as a result."
Finding a sense of gratitude, even during tough times, can help you adjust and even move on from the situation.
Expressing gratitude to another
Research shows that one of the greatest contributing factors to overall happiness in life is how much gratitude you show. So in addition to counting the reasons why you are grateful, expressing it outwardly can also have a significant impact on your life.
Whether it is a friend, colleague, family member or acquaintance, we all have someone in our lives who has been a positive influence. Taking a moment to tell them whether in-person, or through a letter or phone call, will not only make them feel better, but it will benefit you, too. It can also help improve the quality of your relationships.
"Try telling your spouse or children why you are grateful for them," Mirgain said. "You'll be amazed at the positive influence it can have on the relationship."
Expressing the things you are grateful for can take many forms. Whether it is part of a mindfulness practice, or it is a topic of conversation with a friend, the important thing is to find a practice that works for you.
"Mix it up," Mirgain said. "Through art or journaling, meditation or conversation, finding what you are grateful for is a discovery that can lead to profound changes in your life."