Practicing Gratitude

“Gratitude is like a muscle. The more you use it, the stronger it grows. To be grateful is to find the beauty in everything.” Alan Cohen

Over time, our experiences reshape our brains and change our nervous systems - for better or worse. Practicing gratitude is a method for using the brain’s flexibility to cultivate and sustain positive emotions.1

What Does Practicing Gratitude Do?

A classic line in neural psychology is, ‘as neurons fire together, they wire together’. While it may feel as if our thoughts come and go without leaving a trace, quite the opposite is true. As a thought passes through your mind, it leaves behind traces of neural structure.1 To help us survive, the human brain has developed a “negativity bias.” This means our brain defaults to noticing negative information over positive information.

Once a thought has come and gone, it leaves a residue that lingers in the landscape of your mind. Practicing gratitude can break that pattern and replace it with one that is geared towards noticing the positive. Think of your mind as a radio. If you want to listen to a different genre of music, it’s up to you to change the station!

What Are the Benefits?

  • Increases positive emotions while reducing the risk of depression.
  • Improves sleep quality and emotional regulation.
  • Builds resilience to stress.2

How Do I Practice Gratitude?

Cultivate gratitude in your daily events and interactions. Many good things happen in daily life that pass us by without catching our attention. Through these intentional steps, you can transform pleasant events into positive and lasting experiences. As you build this habit over time, it will re-train your thought patterns to notice positivity without you actively trying to.

  • Give yourself several moments to focus on each small, positive event, like the rich flavor of your coffee, or a moment of connection between you and a friend.
  • Instead of moving on immediately, allow the feelings to linger.
  • Put words to the experience. Did this interaction leave you feeling inspired? Appreciated? Did you sense warmth in your cheeks, or a tingle in your belly?
  • Relish it for 10 - 30 seconds, so it really starts developing neural structure.
  • Imagine this positive experience sinking in and becoming a part of you, as if it’s becoming woven into the fabric of your mind. Close your eyes for a moment, revel in the good feelings, and repeat saying “thank you” to yourself.1

Keep a Gratitude Journal. Another way to practice gratitude, is through a daily gratitude journal. This can be as simple as writing down two or three things you are grateful for that day. Setting a routine helps new habits stick. Consider doing this first thing in the morning or before bed. For some, the act of writing is a way to capture thoughts and feelings with more clarity and tangibility than simply thinking them through.

Morning: I am grateful for...

Evening: 3 positive things that happened today...

Using gratitude as a gateway through which you filter your experiences makes your daily interactions richer, and more fulfilling. When beginning any new habit, your first attempt may feel like you’re simply going through the motions. As you build consistency, old thought patterns will start to change. Then, you will notice your automatic thoughts and reactions shifting and becoming more intentional. Have patience, keep an open mind, and be compassionate with yourself.

Even On the Bad Days?

It’s important to make a distinction between feeling grateful and being grateful. We don’t have control over our emotions, and cannot will ourselves into feeling an emotion in particular.3 Being grateful is something that we can choose. It’s an attitude that withstands the gains and losses that flow in and out of our lives. When disaster strikes, gratitude provides a perspective that allows us to view the bigger picture and not be overwhelmed by temporary circumstances. This perspective takes time to achieve, but it is worth the effort.

References:

  1. Bergeisen, Michael. (2010) The Neuroscience of Happiness. Greater Good: Science Based Insights for a Meaningful Life. Published by the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley. Retrieved from: https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/the_neuroscience_of_happiness
  2. Breines, Juliana. (2015) Four Great Gratitude Strategies. Greater Good: Science Based Insights for a Meaningful Life. Published by the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley. Retrieved from: https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/four_great_gratitude_strategies
  3. Emmons, Robert. (2013) How Gratitude Can Help You Through Hard Times. Greater Good: Based Insights for a Meaningful Life. Published by the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley. Retrieved from: https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/how_gratitude_can_help_you_through_hard_times