Gratitude: At the Heart of Thanksgiving Featured

Dr. Boxmeyer and her family. Dr. Boxmeyer and her family. Caroline Boxmeyer

Gratitude is the sentiment at the heart of Thanksgiving. Recently, gratitude practice has been a major area of study in psychology. More than any other personality trait, gratitude is a predictor of good mental health and life satisfaction. For a list of research on gratitude, check out

Caroline Boxmeyer, Professor in Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Medicine and Assistant Dean for Academic Affairs, College of Community Health Sciences at the University of Alabama, has found that gratitude practice is useful in her professional and personal life.

“Professionally, one of the main ways I use it is as a method of prevention in the schools in Tuscaloosa through the Mindful Coping Power project. In depression the brain is primed to look for the negative. Looking for positive can be strengthened like working out strengthens the muscles.  Gratitude is one component of the program.”

“It is not a panacea, but it does change the brain to appreciate our connection with other things and to focus on gratitude.”

The most common gratitude “practice” is the list. Making a gratitude list can be as simple as making a list each day in a notebook or journal. Some people do it every day, and some do it once a month.

Everyone has days where it is hard to feel grateful. It is helpful to look to other people’s lists for those days when the spirit of gratitude seems out of reach. Even if you don’t start out grateful, making the effort to search for something to be grateful for is part of the key to why it has such a powerful effect on depression. The act of finding something to be grateful makes the brain get out of a negative track.

So, don’t feel like you have to start off feeling grateful to have a gratitude practice. The practice is what creates the “attitude of gratitude.”

Social media, like Twitter and Facebook, have lots of examples of gratitude lists and can be a great way to connect with other people who are focusing on gratitude. A Facebook Gratitude Group or Twitter gratitude hashtag has the added value that you can see other people’s lists, which can spark new ideas. Simply search for “gratitude” or “gratitude lists” in the Facebook or Twitter search bar.  There are even gratitude support groups that you can join on Facebook.

Children can benefit from simple gratitude practice as well. Boxmeyer says she has incorporated gratitude practice with her children.

“My gratitude lists are three things from the day that I feel fortunate for or grateful for. Then, with our children, we all describe things we are grateful for as a family. My children are 9 and 11. We have doing it since they were preschool age. They also do it in church. It’s interesting to see how naturally they have come to it over time.”

Gratitude “check ins” with your children can be in the form of dinner table discussions or even in the car during errands or carpool. Taking a moment to each share something you are grateful for counts as gratitude practice. It doesn’t have to be formal to be effective.

Beyond lists, there are also actions that can foster gratitude.  Charlotte Gibson, the director at the Children’s Museum of Tuscaloosa says that she uses honorariums as a way to say “thanks” for people that have been helpful in her life.

“Sometimes I will do honorariums or make memorial gifts. It is a way for me to acknowledge my gratitude for those special people in my life. Many times, I don’t ever tell the person and often it is someone who is no longer with us.  But this is one of the ways I express my gratitude for them.”

There are few things in life that are easy, free, and effective. Gratitude practice ticks off all three. And it doesn’t have to be perfect or involved to be effective.  


Books on Gratitude

  • The Gratitude Diaries: How a Year of Looking on the Bright Side Can Transform Your Life by Janice Kaplan
  • Simple Abundance by Sarah Ban Breathnach
  • The Psychology of Gratitude by Robert Emmons an Michael McCullough (research)
  • The Thankful Book by Todd Parr (children’s book)

Reasons to Do Gratitude Practices

  • Free
  • Even formal practice can take as little as a minute
  • Demonstrable effect on wellbeing
  • May help depression
  • May lower blood pressure and improve immune function

Easy Gratitude Practice Ideas

  • Join a Facebook gratitude group – just search for “gratitude” for a list
  • Add gratitude to Twitter – search for #gratitudelists, #thingsilovetoday
  • Gratitude journal – as little as one line per day or do a monthly 30 things list. You can also purchase special gratitude journals, but a notebook works just as well.
  • Do a gratitude “check in” during carpool with your kids



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Hanson Watkins

Ms. Watkins graduated from Mountain Brook High School and lives in Birmingham with her two boys, Jack, and Charlie. She has bachelor's degrees in psychology and creative writing from Emory University, and an MBA and master's in health administration from Georgia State University. 
Hanson spent 10 years working in the healthcare industry in Atlanta before moving back to Birmingham several years ago to work for her father, Jim Watkins. 
She credits her father, who has owned several businesses over the years, for giving her the entrepreneurial spirit. Her brother, Josh Watkins, is a Birmingham lawyer who helped start the Birmingham Angel Network, a venture capital organization. 

Druid City Living (DCL) is Tuscaloosa, Alabama's premier community newspaper, covering the great people, places and activities of the area.



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