How Gratitude Changes the Brain – And How to Make it Work For You

How Gratitude Changes the Brain (And how to make it work for you.)

Last year I wrote an article called ‘How To Teach Your Kids About The Brain’ that I hoped a few of my friends might see… to date, it’s actually been read over 100,000 times. 

I continue to get emails about it from people all over the world, commenting on my ideas and sharing theirs. Many adults tell me that they didn’t realise their brains worked in the ways I described – and that having this new understanding has really helped them. One of the ideas that has resonated with people is that naming emotions and brain functions can help us understand the brain better. Let’s focus on what I called “Frightened Fred” (which you might call Frieda, Froggy, or any other creative name you can think of). 

Frightened Fred’s got the volume control.

The part of our brain designed to keep us safe is Frightened Fred (along with his friends Big Boss Bootsy and Alerting Allie) who can trigger our ‘fight’ or ‘flight’ response. This part of the brain has been brilliantly effective in the survival of humankind, but it can also get in the way of our daily living sometimes. We have become GREAT at listening to Frightened Fred and spotting the potential pitfalls at every turn: “Did that person in the supermarket just give me a dodgy look?” “Is that chap standing a bit too close to my kids?” 

We are primed to take care of our own survival and that of our offspring. Some days, Fred turns up the volume and we focus all our attention on these risks, potential dangers, failures and worst-case scenarios. 

Sometimes I listen to Fred. Sometimes I don’t. 

Recently, I was invited to speak at a big conference next year. I came off the phone feeling dizzy with excitement. I sat down with a huge grin on my face and allowed the feelings of self- congratulatory praise to come flooding in. Except they didn’t. Fred started making an appearance. “What if I make a terrible mistake?” “What if I face-plant on stage?” “What if I quote someone’s research and that person is actually there, and they tell me I’ve got it all wrong?”

“What if…?” “What if…?” 

Let me slow this down. Fred sees the potential threat of a big crowd looking at me. Fred decides to warn me: “Don’t do it, it will end in tears!” 

Sometimes I listen to Fred (remember he IS trying to keep me safe) and sometimes he is silenced by Problem Solving Pete and Calming Carl. They say things like: “But what’s the best that could happen?” and “If the worst case scenario does happen, you’ll still be okay – except perhaps for face-planting, you may need medical assistance for that one.”

How do we learn to turn down the hum of unhelpful negativity from Frightened Fred? Here’s one way: Gratitude

In Woods, Froh and Geraghty’s review of the gratitude research they explain gratitude as “noticing and appreciating the positive in the world”. This could include: the appreciation of other people’s help; feelings of awe when we see something amazing; focusing on the positive in the ‘here and now’ moments; or an appreciation rising from the understanding that life is short. 

Grateful Gerty

Let me introduce you to Grateful Gerty, our brain’s gratitude representative. The research tells us that building up Grateful Gerty’s strength is associated with a whole host of benefits. Gerty can make Frightened Fred simmer down and reduce anxiety. Expressing gratitude provides a path to more positive emotions. People who express more gratitude have also been found to have better physical and psychological health.

Robert Emmons is one of the world leading gratitude researchers. Here’s what he says about the benefits:

“We’ve studied more than one thousand people, from ages eight to 80, and found that people who practice gratitude consistently report a host of benefits:

Physical

  • Stronger immune systems Less bothered by aches and pains
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Exercise more and take better care of their health
  • Sleep longer and feel more refreshed upon waking

Psychological

  • Higher levels of positive emotions
  • More alert, alive, and awake
  • More joy and pleasure
  • More optimism and happiness

Social

  • More helpful, generous, and compassionate
  • More forgiving
  • Feel less lonely and isolated
  • More outgoing” 

So how does it work?

When we search for things to be grateful for, neuroscientist Alex Korb explains that this activates the part of our brain that releases dopamine (the feel-good hormone) and it can also boost serotonin production (low levels of this neurotransmitter are associated with depression). Or, to put it another way: on Halloween, Gerty’s the one handing out the treats. 

Gratitude can change our thinking habits. Regularly spotting the good things in our life can also make it more likely that (even when we’re not looking for them) we see more positives. 

And gratitude works on a social level too. It can help us feel more connected to others, which in turn can improve our well-being. 

How do you strengthen Gerty?

Grab a journal and, before you go to sleep each night, write 3 things that went well that day and why you think they went well. Keep doing it for a week. That’s it. 

When I first read the research on gratitude, I felt like there must have been some pages missing. “So, they wrote about things they were grateful for, and then they…”? But no. It really is as simple as that. 

As Froh and Bono point out, we can be great at analysing why we’re anxious or sad. But when we’re happy, we don’t often stop to ponder why. Mainly because when we are experiencing positive emotions, it’s a signal that all is well in the world; we can relax and enjoy ourselves. 

Keeping a gratitude journal allows us to focus on the positive things. It teaches us how to strengthen Gerty’s ability to spot them in the first place – and how to savour them. Some people worry that they won’t be able to find anything to be grateful for. While it’s true that some days the searching may be harder than on others, Korb reminds us that “it’s not finding gratitude that matters most; it’s remembering to look in the first place.”

‘There will always be more important things than gratitude.’

Pets will need taking to the vets, reports will need to be finished, kids will need feeding, cups will need cleaning… gratitude can quickly fall down the ‘to do’ list. But that’s the challenge with taking a proactive approach to well-being. It’s hard to prioritise because you can’t easily see the things you’re preventing. 

You may be preventing the onset of depression or anxiety. You may be moving yourself further up the well-being spectrum towards thriving. But scientifically, it would be very hard to prove that. 

Be a scientist of your own world.

Just like we know why it’s good to eat healthily and exercise, my mission is to help share the research on ways that we can all take better care of our well-being. I want people to have access to evidence-based ways to improve their mental health. 

Some of these ideas might work for you, some of them might not. So, what I’d encourage you to do is this: become a scientist in your own life, and if you decide to try keeping a gratitude journal, observe how it feels for you. 

And maybe, just maybe, Gerty will give out some treats. 


About the Author: Dr Hazel Harrison

hazel-1Dr Hazel Harrison works as a clinical psychologist in the United Kingdom. She founded ThinkAvellana to bring psychology out of the clinic and into everyday life. Her website is www.thinkavellana.com and you can also follow her on Twitter at @thinkavellana and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/thinkavellana

4 Comments

Melinda

Thank you a million of times I’m so happy to read each article and helping me to see the bright side of life. I have 3 little ones with anxiety the older one 5 diagnosed on autism spectrum and it is hard in middle of Europe far from helpfull family members to smile and keep everybody happy including my husband. He is helping when he is at home but on his education and terms that are the german ones very comanding and kids need to do as he wants without a word .

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Maud Hagelberg

Hi, I started writing a journal of gratitudes about six months ago with my children. I must say needed that for myself (I am coing through a rough time with feelings and emotions blasting from a dark past…). Not only is it helping me every evening especially when I had a depressing day and my children ask for it at night before going to bed. They go to sleep focusing on good things and sobdo I. I can highjky recommend doing such a journal as it pulls you toward the bright side of life.

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When our kids or teens are struggling, it can be hard to know what they need. It can also be hard for them to say. It can be this way for all of us - we don't always know what we need from the people around us. It might be space, or distraction, or silence, or maybe acknowledging and being there is enough. Sometimes we might need to know that the people we love aren't taking our need for space, or our confusion or anger or sadness personally, and that they are still there within reach.
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What can be easier is thinking about what other people might need. Asking this when they are calm can invite a different perspective and can give you some insight into what they need to hear when they are going through similar. Don't worry if you just get a shrug, or a disheartened, 'I don't know'. They don't need to know, and neither do we. The question in itself might be enough to open a new way through any sense of 'stuckness' or helplessness they might be feeling.
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#parenthood #parenting #positiveparenting #parentingtips #childdevelopment #parentingadvice #parentingtip #mindfulparenting #positiveparentingtips #neurodevelopment #parentingteens
Give them space to talk but you don’t need to fix anything. You’ll want to, but the answers are in them, not us. Sometimes the answer will be to feel it out, or push for change, or feel the futility of it all so the feeling can let go, knowing it’s done it’s job - it’s recruited support, or raised awareness that something isn’t right.

Sometimes the feelings might be seismic but the words might be gone for a while. That’s okay too. Do they want to start with whatever words are there? Or talk about something else? Or go for a walk with you? Watch a movie with you? Or do a spontaneous, unnecessary drive thru with you just because you can - no words, no need to explain - just you and them and car music for the next 20 minutes. 

The more you can validate what they’re feeling (maybe, ‘Today was big for you wasn’t it’) and give them space to feel, the more they can feel the feeling, understand the need that’s fuelling it, and experiment with ways to deal with it. Sometimes, ‘dealing with it’ might mean acknowledging that there is something that feels big or important and a little out of reach right now, and feeling the fullness and futility of that. 

Part of building resilience is recognising that some days are rubbish, and that sometimes those days last for longer than they should, but we get through. First we feel floored, then we feel stuck, then we shift because the only choices we have we have are to stay down or move, even when moving hurts. Then, eventually we adjust - either ourselves, the problem, or to a new ‘is’. But the learning comes from experience.

I wish our kids never felt pain, but we don’t get to decide that. We don’t get to decide how our children grow, but we do get to decide how much space and support we give them for this growth. We can love them through it but we can’t love them out of it. I wish we could but we can’t.

So instead of feeling the need to silence their pain, make space for it. In the end we have no choice. Sometimes all the love in the world won’t be enough to put the wrong things right, but it can help them feel held while they move through the pain enough to find their out breath, and the strength that comes with that.♥️
Speaking to the courage that is coming to life inside them helps to bring it close enough for them to touch, and to imagine, and to step into, even if doesn’t feel real for them yet. It will become them soon enough but until then, we can help them see what we see - a brave, strong, flight-ready child who just might not realise it yet. ‘I know how brave you are.’ ‘I love that you make hard decisions sometimes, even when it would be easier to do the other thing.’ ‘You might not feel brave, but I know what it means to you to be doing this. Trust me – you are one of the bravest people I know.’
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 #neurodevelopment #positiveparenting #parenting #parenthood #neuronurtured #parentingtip #childdevelopment #braindevelopment #mindfulparenting #parentingtips #parentingadvice
So often, our children will look to us for signs of whether they are brave enough, strong enough, good enough. Let your belief in them be so big, that it spills out of you and over to them and forms the path between them and their mountain. And then, let them know that the outcome doesn't matter. What matters is that they believe in themselves enough to try. 

Their belief in themselves might take time to grow, and that's okay. In the meantime, let them know you believe in them enough for both of you. Try, ‘I know this feels big and I know you can do it. What is one small step you can take? I’m right here with you.’♥️
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 #neurodevelopment #positiveparenting #parenting #parenthood #neuronurtured #parentingtip #childdevelopment #braindevelopment #mindfulparenting
Anxiety will tell our kiddos a deficiency story. It will focus them on what they can't do and turn them away from what they can. We know they are braver, stronger, and more powerful than they could ever think they are. We know that for certain because we’ve seen it before. We’ve seen them so held by anxiety, and we’ve seen them move through - not every time but enough times to know that they can. Even when those steps through are small and awkward and uncertain, they are brave. Because that’s how courage works. It’s fragile and strong, uncertain and powerful. We know that that about courage and we know that about them. 

Our job as their important adults is to give them the experiences that will help them know it too. This doesn't have to happen in big leaps. Little steps are enough, as long as they are forward. 

When their anxiety has them focused on what they can't do, focus them on what they can. By doing this, we are aligning with their capacity for brave, and bringing it into the light. 

Anxiety will have them believing that there are only two options - all or nothing; to do or not to do. So let's introduce a third. Let's invite them into the grey. This is where brave, bold beautiful things are built, one tiny step at a time. So what does this look like? It looks like one tiny step at a time. The steps can be so small at first - it doesn't matter how big they are, as long as they are forward. 
If they can't stay for the whole of camp, how much can they stay for?
If they can't do the whole swimming lesson on their own, how much can they do?
If they can't sleep all night in their own bed, how long can they sleep there for?
If they can't do the exam on their own, what can they do?
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When we do this, we align with their brave, and gently help it rise, little bit, by little bit. We give them the experiences they need to know that even when they feel anxious, they can do brave, and even when they feel fragile they are powerful.

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