Gratitude – A Practice that our Brains Love!
With Thanksgiving comes the obvious opportunity to revisit our own inner habits around giving thanks – gratitude. Although we might feel we have heard all we need to hear about gratitude, and we really do “get” why it is a good thing, science continues to come out with data to support the theory that we might want to step into gratitude fully and completely all year round.
It has been said that if you have forgotten the language of gratitude, you will never be on speaking terms with happiness. Science has begun to show us that our brains really do respond positively to a practice of gratitude. For years now, we have heard from researchers that the expression of gratitude can have profound and positive effects on our health, our moods and on our relationships. It takes five positive comments to overcome one negative comment in our significant relationships. Now we are learning that gratitude impacts the structure of our brain.
What we now know is that when we look at the brain activity of someone while he/she is expressing gratitude, we can see that something is happening. Brain activity during expression of gratitude shows blood flow in various regions of the brain increases. Researchers found higher levels of activity in the hypothalamus. This is the area of the brain that controls essential bodily functions such as eating, drinking and sleeping. It also has significant influence on your metabolism and stress levels. This indicates that improvements in gratitude could impact your daily habits such as increased exercise, improved sleep (which has been shown to decrease depression) and fewer aches and pains.
But there is more – feelings of gratitude directly activate brain regions associated with the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine gives us the “feel good” moment which is why it is considered to be the “reward” transmitters. Dopamine affects our overall sense of wellbeing and increases our capacity to learn and be creative. Besides feeling good and being more creative, this neurotransmitter is responsible for “initiating action”. So that means, if you partake in sincere gratitude, your body receives a dose of “feel good” neurochemicals which also increases your motivation, making it more likely to do the action you just did again. The brain likes it and wants to repeat the action or thought. The brain can only focus on so much, so when the dopamine dump into your system happens, the brain is reinforced to look at the world from a grateful perspective, initiating the cycle all over again. (Alex Korb, 2012)
So while we probably all have good intentions to live in gratitude, it does take 21 days to rewire the brain to integrate this practice into our lives. Neurons that fire together are wired together. This means that each time you think a thought or do an action, you strengthen that cluster of neurons together to create hard-wiring for the action. Dr. Rick Hansen talks about this and gives us a 21 day plan to create the new pathways that will allow our brain to default to a gratitude state.
Hansen suggest that a daily practice of writing three things that you are grateful for will get you started in seeing the positive things in your world. Second, he suggests that you journal about one positive experience you have had over the last 24 hours which helps to anchor in your brain the idea that your behaviors do matter. Third, he suggests that you take on a practice of meditation to quiet the brain in this fast-moving world which allows you to learn to focus on the task at hand versus multi tasking. And last, he suggested random acts of kindness which can be as simple as giving someone a compliment. (Rick Hansen, 2010)(Norrell, 2012)
There is no better time for you to begin this practice of gratitude as we greet the holiday season. The season can set us up for looking outward at others and the world in a grateful way or can take us down the path of being over stressed, ill, and unhappy. I love the idea that we really do have control over the way we think and respond to our environment and that what we choose to do with this holiday time not only impacts those around us, but also actually impacts our whole body, mind and soul. May you have a blessed and grateful holiday season.
Alex Korb, P. (2012, November 20). PreFrontal Nudity. Retrieved September 3, 2013, from Psychology Today.
Norrell, N. (2012, November 21). The neuroscience of why gratitude makes us healthier. Retrieved September 3, 2013, from artandcounseling.com/blog.
Rick Hansen, P. (2010, September 22). The Neuroscience of Happiness. (Bergeisen, Interviewer)
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker
Licensed Independent Mental Health Practitioner
- Janie Pfeifer Watson, LICSW, is the founder and director of Wholeness Healing Center, a mental health practice in Grand Island, Nebraska with remote sites in Broken Bow and Kearney. Her expertise encompasses a broad range of areas, including depression, anxiety, attachment and bonding, coaching, couples work, mindfulness, trauma, and grief. She views therapy as an opportunity to learn more about yourself as you step more into being your authentic self. From her perspective this is part of the spiritual journey; on this journey, she serves as a mirror for her clients as they get to know themselves—and, ultimately, to love themselves.
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