As families gather for Thanksgiving dinner Thursday, many of them will engage in the tradition of going around the table taking turns listing something for which they are grateful.

It's a constructive activity, wellness experts say. But it would be even better if it were done the other 364 days of the year, too.

Curating an appreciation for the things in our lives — both big and small — can benefit everything from personal relationships to physical health to mental acuity. Cultivating "an attitude of gratitude" has become a buzz phrase on social media, but proponents of the practice argue that its online fame is coming long after health professionals started noticing the benefits.

"The public has only recently caught up with this," said Mary Jo Kreitzer, founder and director of the Earl E. Bakken Center for Spirituality and Healing at the University of Minnesota. "Over the last few years, it has become trendy, but some of these studies go back 10 years or more."

Kreitzer, who is also a professor in the university's School of Nursing, singles out two reasons that focusing on gratitude has become popular: It's easy, and it works.

"People are looking for simple things they can do to improve their health and well-being," she said. "It's such a simple process. There's no cost. It's accessible; anyone can do it. It takes just a few minutes. And research has shown that this really does make a difference."

Dana Pagitt doesn't need any scientific data to convince her of that. The Twin Cities resident lost 58 pounds using a gratitude practice she learned from Weight Watchers. She's lost that much before, she said, but never permanently.

"This is the first time it has stayed off," said Pagitt, 54, whose weight has been holding steady for two years. "I used to lose 60 pounds and then gain 62. It's been that way since I was 15."

The connection between feeling grateful and losing weight, sleeping more soundly, feeling less anxious or any of the other benefits attributed to gratefulness (the website recently listed 31 of them) might seem a bit convoluted to observers, but, Pagitt maintains, when you try it, the link becomes obvious.

"Once you start thinking of your own life in terms of how grateful you are for it, you become mindful of the way you are treating yourself," she said.

A conscious act

What exactly is gratitude as it's defined in wellness circles?

"It's being consciously aware of the things around us that we are thankful for," said Sarah Gierke, manager of the Be Well program for Park Nicollet Employee Health. These can be things worth hollering about — winning $500 at church bingo night — or things that generate just a quick smile, such as stumbling on a favorite movie while channel-surfing.

The latter, of course, is much more common, which is where we come to the "consciously aware" part of the definition.

Most people don't need to be reminded to be thankful for something monumental. It's the little, everyday things that brighten our lives but are taken for granted and rarely acknowledged — if we're even cognizant of them — that are the focus of most gratitude programs.

"You have to work at it," said Tim Thorpe, executive director of Pathways, a Minneapolis-based holistic healing center. "But if you practice it, it becomes the norm; it becomes a natural inclination. When I say 'practice,' I mean that it becomes part of my demeanor."

Kreitzer agreed that once you get into the gratitude groove, your thinking starts to flow in that direction.

"If you know that every day you have to write down three things you're grateful for, you start looking for them," she said. "So much of our life is on autopilot. In a fast-paced world, it's easy to go without noticing things. But we can train our brain to be present. We can change our perspective and become open to seeing things in a fresh way."

This is not bury-your-head-in-the-sand Pollyanna-ism, proponents insist.

"It's not as if you wake up with a glow around your head and a smile on your face," Thorpe said.

In fact, it's often the crummy days — a blizzard makes you two hours late for work, where you discover that half your team has stayed home so you need to do their work, too, and, by the way, the coffeemaker is broken — that practicing gratitude is the most beneficial, Kreitzer said.

"I think those are the most important days to do it," she said. "It helps us realize that not everything in our lives is bad. In all of our lives, there is something positive that we can find."

Lots of advice

There are "a ton of online resources" for people interested in starting a gratitude practice, Gierke noted.

"Just Google 'gratitude.' You can talk about it or put something up on a poster, or you can share it privately in a journal or gratitude jar. The important thing is to take time each day to reflect."

Pagitt uses what's called the 5-3-1 system: "Every day I spend five minutes thinking about what I'm grateful for," she said. "Then I write down three of them and the reasons why. Finally, I come up with one random act of kindness I intend do for someone else the next day."

Most gratitude programs recommend singling out three things a day, but there's no magic in that number.

"It's like 10,000 steps," Kreitzer said. It gives people a goal that requires effort and can be achieved most days.

But, as with exercise, you might want to start easy and work your way up.

"If three seems like too much, start with one," Gierke said. "Once you can do one, coming up with No. 2 is easy. And the same happens with the third."

Not all programs include keeping a daily record, but most do. For one thing, it helps focus your efforts.

"Write them down, and once a week look at them," ­Kreitzer said of the things you're grateful for. "I think reflection is a powerful tool. Take time to go back and notice the source of the gratitude in your life. Notice the patterns."

Kreitzer, Gierke and Thorpe all are big believers in expressing thanks to others.

"It's easy to forget to tell people that you're grateful," Thorpe said. "Outwardly directed gratitude helps people feel better, and that helps you feel better. Thank people for doing what they do and for being what they are." That will change the way you relate to people and the way they relate to you, he promised. And everyone will benefit.

"I'm a firm believer that if you practice it, it will affect how you act to others," he said. "I was hurrying through the office one day when a woman said to me, 'Hey, Tim, thank you for this place.' And I just smiled and kept going. So she grabbed my hand and said, 'No, you need to stop and hear me. I'm so grateful for this place.'

"Here she was, somebody who was suffering [with an illness] and she was thinking of me! She made me feel really good. There was an energy with her."

Kreitzer said that energy is one of the best parts of gratefulness: "It's contagious."