What exactly *is* gratitude? It's simply (not that simple) the practice of being thankful, literally "counting your blessings" and taking note of the things to be grateful for and expressing that gratitude to others when applicable. There are so many benefits to being thankful that I think it should be called "self giving" instead of thanksgiving because it improves your Self. This doesn't come easily though does it? Our minds fall victim to negativity bias and it is our brains natural home base. We remember bad events more than the good ones and hang onto that nasty thing that our coworker said and forget praise that our boss gave us.
There was a cool research study done (Emmons and McCullough, 2003) where they assigned groups to journal about things they were grateful for, another group wrote of things that annoy them, and another reasons why they were better off than others. Did you know that the young adults assigned to keep gratitude journals showed greater increases in determination, attention, enthusiasm and energy compared to the other groups?? While that shows a clear benefit of gratitude, it also makes it clear distinction. Realizing that other people are worse off than you is not gratitude. Gratitude requires an appreciation of the positive aspects of your situation. It is not a comparison. Sometimes noticing what other people don't have may help you see what you can be grateful for, but you have to take that next step. You actually have to show appreciation for what you have for it to have an effect.
Gratitude takes practice like any other skill. The more you practice gratitude, the more attuned you are to it and the more you can enjoy it's psychological benefits.
Wait, but, what *are* these benefits? Gratitude does something quite peculiar to the brains system: it activates the hypothalamus. This hypothalamus is one of the brains control centers, and gratitude seems to motivate it to excel. The limbic system (which the hypothalamus is part of) is activated whenever we feel gratitude, pride or do something altruistic for someone else. The hypothalamus wakes you up in the morning and gets the adrenaline flowing. It is also an important emotional center, controlling the molecules that make you feel exhilarated, angry, or unhappy. That actually means the gratitude can make our metabolism, hunger and other natural bodily functions work more smoothly. Gratitude interventions have been shown to result in improved sleep, more frequent exercise and stronger cardiovascular and immune systems. Crazy, right???
Gratitude begets gratitude, in part because it releases a hormone, dopamine, the brain chemical correlated with reward, pleasure, and satisfaction. Man, we do anything for dope. Once you have the feel good benefits of gratitude, you'll want to keep feeling it. Dopamine is like the Britney Spears of your brain saying "hit me baby, one more time". In other words it's the brain saying "oh, I liked that, do that again". The more you're grateful for, the more you want to feel grateful. Gratitude interventions (fancy word for thanking exercises) create a positive feedback loop. It's not just a simple pleasure like the kind you get from having sex or chocolate. Instead, the brain's response to gratitude is to activate a reward center, one specifically targeted at boosting our bonds with other people. It rewards you, makes you want to want this feeling again and somehow attached to others at the same time. It's like Gratitude is a social emotion.
The more practice you give your brain at feeling and expressing gratitude, the more it adapts to this mindset- you could even think of your brain as having a sort of gratitude "muscle" that can be exercised and strengthened.
I tell clients the best way to reap the benefits of gratitude is to notice new things you're grateful for every day. Gratitude journaling works because it's totally changes the way we perceive situations by adjusting what we focus on. While you might always be thankful for your great family, just writing I'm grateful for my family week after week doesn't keep your brain on alert for fresh grateful moments. For example, when I write in my gratitude journal, I get specific, I say things like "I'm grateful that my husband paused the hockey game long enough for me to finish my story and for him to acknowledge". He's Canadian, so you know that I am grateful :-)
And while most of you know that I'm part Amish (minimal electronics) I also realize that people may not carry around a pen and a composition book or moleskin journal to jot down their "thanks", so, there are apps for that. It's called My Gratitude Journal by Happy Tapper. It's highly rated and highly used.
Gratitude jars- find a jar and think of at least three things throughout your day that you are grateful for. It can be something as benign as a coffee at your favorite coffee shop, or as grand as the love of your significant other or dear friend. Do this every day, write down what you are grateful for on little slips of paper (bonus points for colored paper!, and fill the jar.
Gratitude letter- This is perhaps the most powerful gratitude exercise there is. Write a hand-written letter to a person you are particularly grateful to have in your life. Be detailed. Express all the wonderful qualities about this person, and how they personally have affected your life for the better. If you have the time personally deliver this letter to the person yourself.
Whichever route you choose, it's a way to train your brain to develop better habits and create a healthier future. It doesn't do all the work for you, but it certainly seems like a good start.
I'm grateful you read until the end. What are you grateful for today? Yesterday? Tomorrow?