Gratitude is one of those feel-good concepts that people are just beginning to pay attention to as a way to be more positive and mindful, but I’m not sure many people fully understand the profound impact that gratitude can have on the brain and body.
Gratitude is the “quality of being thankful; readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness” (Dictionary.com). It can be shown externally and internally. Externally, gratitude can be shown by appreciating other people and what they bring to your life and telling them. It can be shown for the material things you have and the opportunities that you work for or are given. Internally, gratitude can be felt for the qualities that you possess and who you are as a person or that you have a healthy body and mind.
It needs to be felt with authenticity and realness, and should not be practiced in relation to what someone else doesn’t have. For example, it’s important to think, “I am so thankful that I have a house to live in” instead of “I am so thankful that I have a house to live in because I know that some people don’t.” If you think the latter, you may not feel as thankful if you see someone else has something better than you. Maybe TWO houses or a bigger one. Gratitude is about you and being appreciative of the things in your life. Not about what someone else has or doesn’t have.
Gratitude and the Brain Our brains will do whatever it is we tell them to do most. One of the brain’s goals is to be as efficient as possible. It wants to save energy. So it creates connections to the things we do most in order to do them more automatically. That’s why the first time we do something we may be slow at it, but the more we practice it becomes more “natural”. The more we practice, the more connections our brain is making, and the longer we do it, the stronger the connections are. However, our brains have this amazing ability to rewire themselves – a process called neuroplasticity.
Our brains (different than our minds) have no moral compass. And because of this, if we are negative all the time or don’t appreciate the world around us, it will continue to make connections that perpetuate that kind of thinking. However, because of neuroplasticity, if we practice more positive types of thinking like gratitude, our brains can rewire to perpetuate that kind of thinking instead. Our brains cannot think of both negative and positive things at the same time, so which would you rather choose? It can take work and determination, especially if the connections are strong, but practice can make thinking in a more appreciative way your brain’s go to pathway.
Practicing gratitude can help regulate the stress hormone cortisol and increase the release of hormones attributed to feeling happy. Also, because it helps regulate hormones and the autonomic nervous system, it can also reduce anxiety and depression. The article The Neuroscience of Gratitude (Chowdhury, 2020) says that studies have shown gratitude to have these #mentalhealth benefits:
Gratitude practices reduce cardiac diseases, inflammations, and neurodegeneration significantly
Daily journaling and gratitude jars can help individuals fighting with depression, anxiety, and burnout
Writing gratitude letters brings hope and evokes positivity in suicidal patients and those fighting terminal diseases
Gratitude improves the sleep-wake cycle and enhances mood. It helps people with insomnia, substance abuse, and eating disorders.
Ways to Practice Gratitude Gratitude journals are a popular way to practice gratitude because if forces the person to be intentional about who and what they are being appreciative about. Two tips for keeping a gratitude journal are:
Withhold judgement over what you are writing down. Just write what you are thankful for. There are no wrong answers, so don’t try to make what you are doing negative (that defeats the purpose).
Develop a habit by writing in the gratitude journal consistently. Maybe keep it by your bed to write at night or in the morning when you wake up. Developing a habit is where neuroplasticity is at work as well, so remember what you do the most is what your brain will want to continue to do. Help it out by keeping your journal in a handy spot and writing every day.
But, there are more ways to practice gratitude than writing in a journal. Any time you are truly appreciative you are practicing gratitude.
Tell others why you appreciate them and what they bring to the table, especially if it is something you normally take for granted
Be grateful for the dinner you are eating
Take time to appreciate nature during your walk
Be thankful for your work or opportunities
Make a gratitude collage – pictures of things you are grateful for or a gratitude kit where you fill it with trinkets that remind you of experiences you are grateful for
Don’t forget to be thankful for all of you, too. You can both be grateful for who you are and want to continue to want to grow or improve. They are not mutually exclusive.
Practicing gratitude can have more of a profound impact on the way we think and our mental health than we might even realize. There is a level of intentionality behind practicing it and it forces you to live in the moment as you’re feeling appreciative (a mindfulness technique). Try practicing gratitude daily for 30 days and see the difference it makes in the way you think. You may be surprised the impact it has on the way it changes the way you think and feel.