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This Thanksgiving, Count Your Blessings for a Boost to Your Health

SLUCare Expert Explains the Mental Health Benefits of Saying Thanks


Suma Chand, Ph.D., professor in the department of psychiatry at Saint Louis University. Photo by Ellen Hutti. 

Practicing thankfulness is a pillar of religious practice, a mainstay of social interaction and manners, and a treasured part of cultural and family traditions, including the foundation of our national holiday, Thanksgiving. Interestingly, gratitude also has a role to play when it comes to our health.

Suma Chand, Ph.D., professor in the department of psychiatry at Saint Louis University, says that cultivating a habit of gratitude in your life can boost your mood, build your resilience and improve your relationships.

A SLUCare clinical psychologist who specializes in cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), Chand uses cognitive exercises that help build the gratitude ‘muscle’.

“People with depression often have distortions in their thinking,” Chand says. “They filter in a lot of negative information about themselves and their life experiences. They tend to feel there is nothing good going on in their lives, and even really successful people feel that they are not good enough and their life is bleak.

"They tend not to be very consciously aware of anything worthwhile in themselves or their lives and it is therefore not surprising that they tend to have a sense of hopelessness about their future as well.

“In CBT, we do cognitive restructuring work to help change people’s thought patterns. We work to change the way in which people think about themselves and their lives. We aim to help people recognize the good aspects of their lives and also themselves. We may not even use the term 'gratitude' but that is what it is, and it moves people toward the positive and develops a more balanced outlook.”

Studies have looked at gratitude and depressive symptoms, and have found that actively recognizing the good things in our lives automatically elevates our moods. Beyond the momentary mood boost, a regular habit of practicing gratitude leads to an overall better mood state. In addition, when negative things do happen, it will prepare you to reframe them in a better way so that you get back up and keep going with hope.

“Life can be hard,” Chand says. “And life has stress and struggles.

“The thing to do is to make the best of it. When you think of the good things in your life, it balances out the negatives. There is a cumulative effect and you are better able to take the knocks life gives you.”

Cultivating a practice of gratitude is something anyone can do, Chand says, to improve your outlook and resilience.

“Sometimes it feels overwhelming to make changes, but this is something that can be really easy to incorporate into your life,” Chand says.

Ways to practice gratitude:

  • Keep a gratitude diary. It may mean just noting down little things that happen through the day on paper or on your smartphone for which you are grateful. Include small things. Taking a few minutes out of your day now and again to do this will help you to become consciously aware of these little bright sparks that are occurring through the day, elevating your mood and gradually building a habit of gratitude.
  • Make thanksgiving a part of your prayers. Have a dialogue with God and say thanks for your blessings, one by one.
  • Verbally thank other people for the things they do that you appreciate.
  • Write thank you notes to people; this can also make you more appreciative of the people in your life.
  • Savor the good things. When something bad happens, we agonize over it for far too long. But often, Chand says, when something good happens, we barely take time to enjoy it.
  • One of Chand’s favorite exercises to do with depressed patients who complain of having nothing worthwhile in their lives is this one: Imagine you are alone on an island, but you can ask for anything from your life and it will be there with you. What would you ask for? “People start slowly and invariably start by asking for their loved ones and then move on to  more people and things,” Chand says. “As they keep going and the list grows with their family members, friends, pets, hobbies, books, games, phone, and so on. Their mood lifts visibly and by the end of the exercise, they often realize how much they actually have in their lives which they have taken for granted and never really appreciated consciously.”
  • Live your life more mindfully. This can mean practicing a guided meditation, but it also can be an approach to living your life that will actually build gratitude. 

“When you have a good cup of coffee, take a moment to savor it and experience it,” Chand says. “When you walk outside and feel the sun on your face and wind in your hair, and you notice it, it makes you feel good. Living your life mindfully will elevate feelings of gratitude and your mood.”

Established in 1836, Saint Louis University School of Medicine has the distinction of awarding the first medical degree west of the Mississippi River. The school educates physicians and biomedical scientists, conducts medical research, and provides health care on a local, national and international level. Research at the school seeks new cures and treatments in five key areas: cancer, liver disease, heart/lung disease, aging and brain disease, and infectious diseases.

SLUCare Physician Group is the academic medical practice of Saint Louis University, with more than 500 health care providers and 1,200 staff members in hospitals and medical offices throughout the St. Louis region. SLUCare physicians are among the most highly trained in their fields — more than 50 specialties in all — and are national and international experts, renowned for research and innovations in medicine.

* This story was originally posted in 2015.