Each November, teachers around the country prompt kids to think about what they’re thankful for. But how many of us do this in adulthood? And why only once a year? Is it merely a social habit, or is there actually a benefit to it that goes beyond the obvious good manners?

A number of studies have drawn a positive link between people who regularly practise gratitude and good mental health. They have a sense of perspective about their problems, don’t ‘sweat the small stuff’ and report that they generally feel happy, or contented.

Furthermore, in her recent book, Dr Elizabeth Blackburn (who was awarded a Nobel Prize for her work on telomeres), explains that people who take time to be present in the moment, and direct positive thoughts towards themselves and their lives, are more likely to be healthy for longer, and less likely to suffer from the diseases of aging – diabetes, heart disease, cancers.

“The ability to focus on… your present experience, turns out to be very good for the cells of your body” – Elizabeth Blackburn

According to Blackburn’s research, everything from the food we put in our bodies to the thoughts we think, have an effect – positive and negative – on the health of individual cells. The telomeres inside our cells, which control when and how they grow or die, are easily affected by what we do.

Here is her list of the things that make them happy and healthy:

  • Positive attitude: viewing problems as challenges that we’ll enjoy tackling can reduce stress response from unhealthy to healthy
  • Meditation, mindfulness and breathing exercises also reduce production of cortisol, the stress hormone, and can even help lengthen telomeres
  • Exercise, especially cardiovascular exercise, is great for telomeres
  • Eat fresh, whole foods. Avoid processed and high sugar items
  • Socialize. When we feel connected and safe with other people, whether family or friends, our cells know about it. This makes a difference, regardless of income or abilities.

So although Thanksgiving only comes once a year, make some time in your day to sit quietly and think about the good things in your life right now. It will keep you present, and it can also help strengthen good habits, like taking regular exercise and enjoying delicious food that’s good for your cells.