Does Thanksgiving make your brain feel better?

Posted on January 10, 2012


(Image: Wikipedia)

Dateline: 18 November 2011 // Posted by: Peter Floyd

Source: Daily Mail

Story: “Thanksgiving DOES pay off: Why our bodies and brains pay us back for being grateful

Summary: The article describes how the act of thanking people can directly trigger happiness. The (American) tradition of “Thanksgiving” is apparently very good for people as the act of thanking has an amazing effect on us both mentally and physically. It doesn’t matter which medium is used to thank another as long as it is sincere. If you don’t really mean it you won’t get happier. People that avoid giving thanks are actually only making themselves more unhappy.

According to the article the act of “thanking” releases important feel good hormones like dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin. It also reduces the hormone linked with stress, Cortisol. As a result we become more content and less stressed. Our brains can actually filter out insincere thanks or thanks forced through social obligation and this is why not all acts of thanks make us happy.

If we become stressed or unhappy apparently this can be easily fixed by simply sitting down and writing a thank you letter to someone. Gratitude is not just a strategy but is resource that we should use to increase happiness.

Why is this PseudoNews? Firstly, the idea that giving thanks can be a primary source that causes chemical shifts in our body and can directly improve mood is debatable to say the least. The act of measurement of such shifts is in itself a major point for inquiry. In reality it would be the feeling of gratitude rather than the act of thanking that would stem a biological response. Thanking someone in a sincere manner therefore, is merely a by-product of pre-existing happiness and thus not the source for it.

The argument is flawed from the very beginning when it mentions “Thanksgiving – and the other festivals throughout the year – offer a good excuse to catch up with family and friends, and indulge in our favourite foods.” Surely one can agree that the happiness is derived from the social contact with others and the rudimentary enjoyment of eating rather than an act of actually giving thanks.

A sincere “thank you” is rarely given when one is unhappy, stressed or angry. Even if you are thanking someone for making you laugh when you are in a bad mood it is still a by-product of increased happiness.

Another idea to consider is that sincere “thanks” could be unwelcomed or dismissed by another person and thus will have the opposite effect, i.e. cause grief. People seek approval and acceptance from their peers in almost every walk of life. Therefore the theory is nipped in the bud and consequently has no solid ground for argument.  There are many possible flaws and erroneous presumptions in this article that make it pseudoscientific news.

What features of pseudoscience are on show? First and foremost the article and claims lack parsimony. The claims ignore external stimuli, assuming that the happiness comes from the act of thanks giving. Internal happiness is not impossible but is not the result of this act. Gratitude as a feeling does stem happiness, but the expression of one’s gratitude will not enhance it. The claims ignore the simplest hypothesis in exchange for one that will correspond to the researchers’ desire.

The article also avoids falsifiability which is a key component to a pseudoscience.  The data was merely collected and used to back up the view that giving thanks improves happiness. To contradictory studies are mentioned and specific information is avoided.

Another pseudoscientific feature evident is the lack of experimental control. Although the article claims that there is a spike in hormone levels during the act of thanking it does not take into account the large possibility of unidentified factors. Everyone reacts differently to certain situations and many different things cause the release of Dopamine, Cortisol and Oxytocin. Measuring the levels of such hormones under normal circumstances would be a mammoth challenge.

The moral of the story: The fact of the matter is that sincere thanks is a by-product of happiness and does not cause it. It is the internal feeling of gratitude and not the expression of it that causes an increase in happiness.