Updated: Jul 2, 2021
‘Gratitude’ might seem like one of the latest self-help fads. Social networking is replete with gratitude lists, and dedicated gratitude journals are becoming New York Times best sellers. But before you tune out, take a few minutes to reflect on how cultivating a sense of appreciation can enhance your emotional health and the health of the important people in your life; your colleagues, your families and your patients. A repeated focus upon gratitude to also benefit your brain health.
Ancient philosophers from Plato to Cicero recognized the centrality of appreciation in living a fulfilled and meaningful life. Thankfulness practices are deeply woven into religious and cultural practices worldwide. Modern psychologists, too, have long recognized the potential benefits of gratitude practices. Today, thanks to an increasing body of gold-standard psychological and physiological research on gratitude and other positive emotions, we can say with confidence: it’s time to take gratitude seriously.
Understanding Brain Processes, Structures, and Gratitude
Although I prefer not to localize big feelings and behaviors to a specific geographic location in the brain, gratitude does light up certain brain regions and pathways. Gratitude is considered a positive emotional trait and it’s often linked to life satisfaction. A recent study looked at the neural relationship between gratitude and life satisfaction and found that regional gray and white matter volume in the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC) changes depending upon how immersed you are in feeling grateful. Evidence also suggests that gratitude as a trait, and life satisfaction are commonly linked in the Medial Prefrontal Cortex. In terms of neurotransmitters and gratitude, both dopamine and serotonin are enhanced with feeling appreciative for what we have in life.
Changes in brain response in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex were observed in a study that measured the outcomes of gratitude journaling, a gratitude intervention. Researchers found that both gratitude and neural pure altruism increased with gratitude journaling, suggesting that such interventions make it easier to feel gratitude with certain practices, and that this reflects in brain changes
Gratitude Boosts Mood and Health
Simple gratitude practices have been linked to higher levels of happiness and improved relationships at both work and home. Recent research has found that gratitude is correlated with psychological well-being at a higher rate than hope and optimism. Taking time to contemplate life’s gifts can also have measurable impacts on your physical health.
Lowers pain, lessens chronic illness symptoms, boosts your immune system, and helps you feel healthier overall.
Lowers your blood pressure. Ongoing research suggests that gratitude practices can even improve the wellbeing of heart failure patients.
Keeps your brain healthier as you age, and reduces your risk of depression and anxiety disorders. Emerging research also suggests gratitude interventions can be effective in a long-term mental health plan for sustaining well-being.
Helps you sleep better. When your head hits the pillow with a grateful glow, you may sleep longer and wake up feeling more refreshed.
Empowers you to make healthier choices. Research shows that people engaging in gratitude practices had a lower dietary fat intake and were more likely to exercise.
With all of the above benefits, it's no surprise that people practicing gratitude also spend less time in the doctor's office!
5 Simple Gratitude Habits
Ready to count the blessings in your life? Try taking on one or more of these new gratitude habits to help you get closer to your fully integrated health goals.
1. Write a Gratitude List
Try making a list of three to five things you appreciate about your life. Reflect on your relationships, including the daily interactions and experiences that tend to pass unnoticed. Research shows that this practice is associated with higher levels of happiness up to six months later. Consider integrating this exercise into your daily routine by adding a quick gratitude accounting to your evening or morning practice. Try to keep up the practice for two weeks or more. It may lead to better mood and improved sleep.
Keep things fresh by challenging yourself to write new gratitude statements each day. Make your gratitude statements detailed, invoking vivid memories of the day’s positive events. You may also try envisioning your past and future, reflecting on your journey and expressing gratitude for the ability to work towards your goals.
Where you record your gratitudes is unimportant but if you’d like to keep an inspiring long-term record of “appreciations”, consider jotting down your statements on a blank calendar or a beautiful Gratitude Journal
2. Mental Thank You
Gratitude practices support personal growth, but they also emphasize the centrality of interpersonal relationships to our happiness and success. As you go through the day muttering reflexive ‘thank you’ to cashiers and others in our path, you may lose touch with the power of thankfulness. For an instant happiness boost, think of someone who you are grateful to have in your life. Send them a telepathic thank you, noting what you appreciate about them as specifically as possible.
3. Thank You Note
At work, you’ve probably learned the importance of verbally thanking your coworkers. Still, we rarely take the opportunity to fully acknowledge our appreciation for our family, friends, and mentors.
Researchers have found that writing a thank-you letter to someone who has been a positive influence in your life can increase your happiness for up to six months. For maximum benefits, deliver the note in person. The recipient also benefits, and can revisit the letter for a pick-me-up in their own times of struggle.
Seems cheesy? Imagine the joy receiving such a letter could bring to your own life. If you’d like to start smaller, stopping to say a heartfelt ‘thank you’ to the person who bags your groceries at the store is a worthwhile beginning.
Relationships are central to an integrated healthy life. Taking the time to fully express your appreciation is a relationship strengthener. This practice also helps us recognize and appreciate the teams that support us through life’s journey, widening the circle of attribution for our joys and successes.
4. Mental Subtraction
Imagine losing the things you love the most. This contemplative practice dates back to the ancient stoics. It is common practice in certain cultures to meditate regularly on the inevitability of death and loss.
Don’t fret, it won’t cause depression. On the contrary, research shows that such contemplative practices benefit the soul, improving mood and increasing positivity. One of the reasons that this practice might be beneficial is because it helps us face our fears.
Mental subtraction helps you recognize what is truly meaningful in your life. Imagining losing what you value can help you affirm the goodness in your life and appreciate the sources of goodness outside of yourself. You can also take the practice to the next level by giving up something you appreciate for a short period of time.
5. Savoring Walk
Get outside for 20 minutes and take time to soak in your surroundings. Notice and appreciate the little details - the blade of grass in the sidewalk cracks, the shape of the clouds. There’s no need to find a scenic route. You can stroll around the office, your neighborhood, or a nearby park. Pay attention to sensory inputs. What do you see, hear, and smell?
Researchers found that participants engaging in this type of savoring during a 20-minute walk reported higher levels of happiness that week.
As you savor the environment, remember the words of Welsh poet W.H. Davies: “What is this life if, full of care, we have no time to stand and stare.” Practice recognizing the invaluable gift of your surroundings and your capacity for sensation.
Sticking To It Enhances Neuroplasticity
For long-term benefits, integrate one or more of these practices into your regular routine. Get excited about the gratitude’s potential benefits, but realize it will take time to see noticeable differences in health and mood.
Even leading happiness researcher Robert Emmons admits that developing the gratitude attitude takes daily effort. You might feel a bit clumsy at first. It can feel as unnatural as learning a new sport or instrument. But over time, as you enjoy your gratitude journey, you may slowly change the way you appreciate and reflect upon daily events. As you build in this “neuroplasticity” practice and encouraging new wiring and firing in your brain, your also enhancing your appreciation for your life. Consistent gratitude practice will nudge you to focus on thankfulness over complaints, strengthening your happiness and the bright spots in your relationships.
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