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Yvonne Abraham

Hearty doses of gratitude

Happy Thanksgiving! Welcome to the healthiest holiday of the year.

OK, not the food part. That is delicious, yes. Stuporous, absolutely. But definitely not that good for you.

No, the major magic of this holiday is in the part where we give thanks. A bunch of recent studies show that gratitude comes with serious bennies. It makes you happier, healthier, possibly wealthier, nicer, and more popular, among other delightful things. All of this happens because practicing gratitude makes you happier with what you have, more focused on others, and more mindful of the future.

Monica Bartlett, an associate professor of psychology at Gonzaga University, studies the impact of gratitude on social relations. Writing thank you notes goes way beyond making grandma happy, she says. When you express genuine gratitude, it makes someone more inclined to view you as warm, to help you again, and to want to get to know you better.

When people are feeling grateful, Bartlett has found, they’re more willing to help their benefactors, even when it is costly, or tedious. They’re also more willing to help total strangers, to pay it forward. And they’re more inclined to be generous with money.

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While we’re on money: Because it makes us less grabby, gratitude can pay. Northeastern University psychologist David DeSteno led a study that found that feeling grateful makes people more patient, allowing them to resist instant gratification, and potentially make better financial decisions. Subjects were offered a small sum of money immediately, or a larger sum if they waited three months to collect it. Those who were feeling grateful were more willing to wait — longer than merely happy people — for the bigger payoff.

That makes for better investing, and fewer Black Friday impulse buys. As DeSteno put it in a recent New York Times essay, “the solution to the shopping season’s excesses may lie in the very message of Thanksgiving itself.”

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And then there are the findings on gratitude’s health benefits. For those, let’s consult the guru of gratitude, Robert Emmons, a psychology professor at University of California Davis who is so busy this time of year he answered questions via e-mail.

Emmons, whose latest book is called “Gratitude Works!,” cites studies showing thankfulness helps people sleep better, partly because grateful people are less likely to think negative, sleep-impairing thoughts. “Given how sleep-deprived we collectively are, and how vital sleep is for healthy functioning, this is huge.”

People who keep gratitude journals — regularly noting things for which they are thankful — sleep a half-hour more per evening and exercise 33 percent more each week, Emmons says. Counting your blessings can lower blood pressure, improve immune function, and reduce the risk of depression and anxiety.

“When we start to think about our health and bodies as a gift, we want to protect and preserve that gift,” Emmons writes.

Gratitude, incompatible with resentment, also makes people happier. In a study Emmons led, participants asked to list things they were grateful for each week reported feeling 25 percent happier than those asked to list the week’s hassles, and those in a control group.

The findings are specific to gratitude. They show causation, not just correlation: It’s not just that people inclined to feel grateful are more inclined to kindness and other good things. Inducing gratitude in people actually made them more willing to help a stranger, delay gratification, or feel healthier.

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So, there it is. In addition to enhancing girth, Thanksgiving is the key to happiness.

You’re welcome!


Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at abraham@globe.com