If you feel like you have been living under a mountain of stress the last two years, you are not alone. Between a global pandemic, political and social unrest, and economic uncertainty, it’s no wonder fear and anxiety have become prevalent emotions in our society. Since we cannot always control the outer state of our world or the endless barrage of distressing information we receive, it’s essential to take control of our inner state of mind for our mental wellbeing. The good news is we can do this just by being more mindful of our thoughts.
Research shows that one of the most effective ways to make ourselves feel better is through practicing gratitude. According to UCLA’s Mindfulness Awareness Research Center, regularly expressing gratitude changes the brain’s molecular structure, keeps gray matter functioning, reduces anxiety, and makes us healthier and happier. Unfortunately, however, our brains are hardwired to focus on the negative more than the positive.
This negativity bias is thought to be an adaptive evolutionary function. Thousands of years ago, our ancestors were exposed to immediate environmental threats like predators. As a result, they had to be on constant alert for survival reasons. We no longer need to worry about these same dangers, but our brains have not caught up to modern society. To override this overly protective gene and reap the rewards of a thankful mind, it is necessary to focus on the positive things in our lives intentionally and consistently.
An easy way to get started is to take time throughout your day to think about one thing you are grateful for at that moment. You can go a step further by sharing what you are thankful for with friends and family. If you enjoy the outdoors, gratitude walks are an excellent option. Gratitude meditations work well too. However, studies show one of the most beneficial things you can do is keep a daily gratitude journal. If you are not a pen-to-paper type of person, there are gratitude apps that you can use as a digital journal. These are especially useful if you prefer to have writing prompts.
Unfortunately, many people miss out on this powerful tool because they don’t believe it will work for them or because they aren’t happy with their present circumstances. The reality is, it is during those times when we don’t feel innately grateful that we need to adopt this process the most.
Here are five ways practicing gratitude changes our brain chemistry, thereby increasing joy and enhancing overall satisfaction.
- When we express gratitude, our brain releases the hormones dopamine and serotonin, the two crucial neurotransmitters that make us feel good. They instantaneously enhance our mood, making us feel happy from the inside. If we consciously practice gratitude every day, we can help these neural pathways to strengthen themselves and ultimately create a more grateful and positive nature from within.
- Dopamine is also considered the ‘reward’ neurotransmitter as it feels good to receive. It initiates action because the more we enjoy something, the more our brain wants to do it again. So, if you lack motivation in any area of your life, adding gratitude to the activity will enhance your chances of feeling more inspired and enthusiastic to keep going.
- When our brain perceives a situation as dangerous or threatening, it shuts down the executive function or higher planning part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex. Thus, impacting our ability to analyze problems thoughtfully. When our emergency response system kicks in, our amygdala sends a signal to the hypothalamus, releasing chemicals like adrenaline and cortisol, increasing stress and anxiety. Gratitude counteracts the survival instinct helping us calm down and think more clearly. Since the prefrontal cortex is responsible for regulating negative emotions, thankfulness can also help reduce feelings of fear, anger, and shame.
- Hypothalamic regulation triggered by gratitude helps with sleep too. Studies show spending just 15 minutes jotting down a few grateful sentiments before bed can help us sleep more restoratively, allowing us to wake up more refreshed and energetic in the morning. We all feel happier and more invigorated to take on the day when we have a good night’s rest.
- In neuroscience research, Hebb’s Law says that “neurons that fire together wire together.” The more we practice gratitude, the more we strengthen the brain’s neural circuits for gratitude, making it easier to focus on feelings of gratitude. When we start to focus on the things we already have in our life that are good, our brain becomes better at discovering similar things.
It is important to point out that this is not about positive thinking. You don’t have to convince yourself that everything is perfect when it isn’t. That could have the opposite effect and make you feel worse. Instead, simply focus your attention on what is going right in your life at that moment, no matter how small or insignificant it might seem. We all have something to be grateful for, and we will find it if we take the time to look.
My life is far from perfect, but I have a pet to snuggle with when I am down, central air in this California heatwave, birds singing outside my window, and incredible vegan pizza close by when I need the perfect comfort food. Just thinking about them now makes me smile and gets those feel-good hormones going.
By nurturing an “attitude of gratitude,” you too can switch your attention from what you feel you lack towards what you do have. Even if you are going through hardship, practicing gratitude can truly transform your day and life.