Under the Hood

How Thanksgiving Boosts Your Psychological Well-Being

When linking the subject of health to Thanksgiving, nutrition might be the first thing to cross your mind. But as it turns out, there is more to consider here, going well beyond what you put on your plate.

Many psychologists shed light on how the ritualistic aspect could impact our emotional health. At a basic level, families gather together for a meal on a special day and have conversations with each other. 

But the benefit of communication, especially within a family, is often underestimated. Children, in particular, tend to experience a boost in psychological well-being from having conversations with their family. This could be as simple as having parents who ask about their day from a place of genuine curiosity and concern.

"But we do think that repeating these positive behaviors — attending to emotions during meals, recognizing other’s concerns, demonstrating you truly care about what’s happening in each other’s lives — over time provides a supportive emotional climate for healthy development," stated psychologist Barbara Fiese.

And when the occasion is a special one, it is not farfetched to believe people are more likely to pay attention and avoid the usual distractions. One study from the University of British Columbia found a notable decline in interaction and enjoyment in people who used their phone at the dinner table.

Ritual aside, the other characterizing feature of Thanksgiving is, well, giving thanks. Many experts noted gratitude promotes a number of health benefits, supported by an increasing body of evidence.

"In studies, after eight weeks of practice, brain scans of individuals who practice gratitude have stronger brain structure for social cognition and empathy, as well as the part of the brain that processes reward," said Dr. Emiliana Simon-Thomas, the science director of the Greater Good Science Center.

While one can display gratitude for material possessions, acknowledging "rich, interpersonal connections and experiences" tended to have a greater impact. While this is practiced as a part of the big meal, Simon-Thomas also recommended other methods such as keeping a gratitude journal to fill out throughout the year. 

For many, there was a certain degree of value in looking back on the past. It allowed one to feel more connected to their family by being a part of something much bigger than the individual. Children who know their family history were more likely to be resilient, according to some experts.  

"I think that a reflection of how our lives have been made so much more comfortable by the sacrifices of those who have come before us down through the generations should be the focus of how Thanksgiving should be observed," said Dr. Robert Emmons, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis.