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Put the 'thanks' back into Thanksgiving
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Put the 'thanks' back into Thanksgiving

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Science agrees, it is better to be grateful, than to be self-centered or materialistic.

Increasingly scientific research backs up that view, finding those with the attitude of gratitude are mentally and physically healthier, more satisfied with their lives and have better relationships.

Gratitude really is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Researchers at Baylor University found that materialistic people are more likely to be depressed and unsatisfied because they find it harder to be grateful for what they have.

“Gratitude is a positive mood. It’s about other people,” said study lead author Jo-Ann Tsang, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience in Baylor’s College of Arts and Sciences. “Previous research that we and others have done finds that people are motivated to help people that help them — and to help others as well. We’re social creatures, and so focusing on others in a positive way is good for our health.”

Gratitude creates and reinforces the human bond -- and, in the long run, allows us to meet difficult situations with less stress, according to Robert Emmons, a professor at the University of California, Davis. In fact, he contends difficult situations may stimulate gratitude.

Researchers find that gratitude can improve physical health.

“Gratitude enhances our resilience, strengthening us to face disturbing information, said Joanna Macy, eco-philosopher and Buddhist scholar.

Emmons and fellow research Michael E. McCullough of the University of Miami have found that grateful people not only have increased optimism, but are more likely to exercise and have fewer doctor’s appointments.

A study of law students by University of Utah psychology professor Lisa Aspinwall found that optimistic students responded to the stress of the semester with higher numbers of blood cells that protect the immune system, compared to those who were more pessimistic.

The National Institutes of Health finds that positive emotions have positive effects on heart health, hypertension and coronary artery disease.

On the other hand, people who are more “me-centered” find it harder to be happy with what they have, Baylor researchers say.

“As we amass more and more possessions, we don’t get any happier we simply raise our reference point,” said study co-author,  James Roberts, a professor at Baylor’s Hankamer School of Business. “That new 2,500-square-foot house becomes the baseline for your desires for an even bigger house. It’s called the Treadmill of Consumption. We continue to purchase more and more stuff, but we don’t get any closer to happiness; we simply speed up the treadmill.”

Previous research suggests that materialists tend to be less satisfied with their lives overall.

They are more likely to be unhappy and have lower self-esteem. They also are more likely to be less satisfied with relationships and less involved in community events.

Meanwhile, those who are grateful are likely to find more meaning in life, previous research shows.

The study notes that ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus advised, “Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for.”

Said Emmons, “It is gratitude that enables us to receive and it is gratitude that motivates us to return the goodness that we have been given,” Emmons said. “In short, it is gratitude that enables us to be fully human.

So how do you teach that to a child who is bombarded with message that the holidays are all about wanting and getting what you want?

Child psychologists Jeffrey Froh and Giacomo Bono, authors of “Making Grateful Kids: The Science of Building Character” say the holidays are the perfect time to teach about gratitude.

“The best thing about the holidays is being with family, friends and giving to others,” Froh said. “Kids have a hard time enjoying and appreciating these things when they are distracted with the ‘stuff’ that comes along with the season.”

Gratitude is more than a seasonal issue. In their seven years of research, Froh and Bono have found that children who exhibit more gratitude have better social interactions, higher grades and strong connections in their schools and communities. They are less likely to engage in risky behavior and more likely to set goals, have plans for the future and be more generous.

“We hear from many parents that are worried about the entitlement they see in their children. They want to reverse it, but don’t know how,” Bono said. “The holidays are a great time to start putting the focus on the right things and begin developing gratefulness in your children.’

Experts offer the following tips for putting the “thanks” back into thanksgiving and the entire holiday season:

* Track your gratitude. Sure, the holidays are busy, but make a point of having everyone in the family keep track of things and people they are grateful for each day. Then set aside time as a family to share the things they are most grateful for.

* Give back. The holiday season is filled with opportunities to help others through charitable donations of volunteer work. This season, do more than talk about it -- get out and do something for others. Make it a family venture and talk about it afterward.

* Stress the effort that goes into gift giving. Talk to kids about how hard someone must have spent time picking out the perfect gift for them.

* Better giving. Holiday shopping is not about finding any old thing and crossing that person off your list. Teach kids to think about the gift recipient and what that person really needs or would like. Stress thoughtfulness and the importance of relationships, regardless of how big or little a present might be.

* Make the gift of time. There is much truth and scientific support that children -- or all people -- prefer the gift of presence to presents.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7217 or eandersen@journalstar.com. On Twitter @LJSerinandersen.

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