Gratitude – we’re all capable of it, but sometimes we need a little reminder, or a little convincing to practice it. There are many reasons to practice gratitude, but we are only recently discovering one of the big ones – its capacity to change and strengthen the brain in remarkably positive ways.
Gratitude is powerful. It might not throw itself at our feet and demand our attention in a ‘why oh why won’t you notice me’ kind of way, but it’s powerful. Research has shown that gratitude can improve general well-being, increase resilience, strengthen social relationships, and reduce stress and depression. The more grateful people are, the greater their overall well-being and life satisfaction. They’ll also have stronger immune systems, lower blood pressure, better sleeps (and better waking). They’ll be more alert and more generous, compassionate, and happier. Grateful people also have a greater capacity for joy and positive emotions.
Why is gratitude important? (And don’t say ‘because it changes your brain’. We knew it was important before we knew about that.)
Gratitude involves noticing the goodness in the world, but it doesn’t mean being blind to the tough stuff or the mess that can get all of us from time to time. Gratitude makes sure that in the midst of the things that serve up a good dose of negative feelings, we don’t lose sight of the good. Here are some of the ways gratitude turns up the volume on the feel-goods.
It strengthens our connections with people.
Gratitude is an acknowledgement that something meaningful has been done for us. It’s an open-hearted, deliberate recognition of the generosity of the giver. Of course, we can also be grateful for broader things that haven’t necessarily been ‘given’ to us by someone, such as our health, a safe place to sleep, or friendships. As with material things though, showing gratitude for the less tangible things in our lives stops us from being seen as ‘entitled’, or a ‘freeloader’, neither of which generally add shine to social relationships.
It lets people know we aren’t the type to take things for granted.
There are two types of people. Those who wave thanks to people who let them in in traffic, and those who don’t. Each invite their own response from the world. Gratitude shows that we’re good to be in a relationship with, and that we appreciate certain things, without expecting them.
It reinforces generous behaviour.
Gratitude reinforces generosity from the giver and from the receiver. When there is an open display of gratitude in our relationships, both people are more likely to repeat the giving, and the open-hearted receiving. The effect of this is not only from person to person, but can ripple into the world.
‘Gratitude rewards generosity and maintains the cycle of healthy social behaviour’ – Antonia Damasia, Director of the BCI and Dornsife Neuroimaging Institute at Unversity of Southern California and professor of psychology and neurology.
It increases feelings of security and connectedness.
Gratitude helps us notice the good that comes from outside of ourselves. We see the good in the world and in the people around us, increasing our feelings of security and connectedness.
It keeps the feel-goods around for around for longer.
Positive emotions tend to be like Teflon – they slide off us way too quickly. Gratitude lets us hang on to the positive for longer, and celebrate the good in our lives that we might otherwise move on too quickly from.
It squeezes out negative feelings.
It’s impossible to feel grateful and negative at the same time. The more space gratitude is allowed to take up, the more it will expand itself and make way for other positive emotions – connection, happiness, appreciation, joy. More good feelings means less room for the toxic ones.
It helps with depression.
Research has found that gratitude can help with depression and increase positive feelings. Enough said.
Gratitude – it’s more powerful with the things you do than the things you own (even if what you own is lovely).
Research has found that we tend to feel more grateful for experiences than for things we have. There doesn’t seem to be any clear reason for this, but one of the theories is that experiences are less likely to trigger social comparisons. While ‘things’ can seduce us into comparing what we have to what other people have, experiences are more likely to shift our focus to our own personal circumstances, and expand feelings of appreciation, happiness and contentment.
The science of gratitude. How does gratitude change the brain?
When the brain feels gratitude, the parts of the brain that are activated include the ventral and dorsal medial pre-frontal cortex. These areas are involved in feelings of reward (the reward when stress is removed), morality, interpersonal bonding and positive social interactions, and the ability to understand what other people are thinking or feeling.
Gratitude also has the capacity to increase important neurochemicals. When thinking shifts from negative to positive, there is a surging of feel-good chemicals such as dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin. These all contribute to the feelings of closeness, connection and happiness that come with gratitude.
But consistency is key.
Gratitude builds on itself. We know the brain changes with experience, so the more that gratitude is practised, the more the brain learns to tune in to the positive things in the world. This isn’t something that tends to come naturally. We humans have a negativity bias, which means that we’re wired to notice threats in the environment. This is a good thing – it’s kept us alive since the beginning of us – but as well as being alive we also want to be happy. When there is too much of a focus on the negative, gratitude can be a way to nurture a more positive focus, and teach the brain to spend more time on the feel-goods and less time hanging on to the things that scrape.
With the brain primed to notice the negatives, we need to not only teach it to tune into the positive, but also to hold those positives for long enough to have an effect. Our default position is to let the good slide off us fairly quickly, so we need to be deliberate about holding on to it for long enough to change the brain. Rick Hanson has done plenty of work in this area and has found that holding (focusing on) an experience for 20 seconds is long enough to create positive structural changes in the brain. Gratitude gives space for the positive experience to expand, or for us to ‘re-experience’ it, rather than having us move quickly move on from it.
Gratitude has the added power of initiating a social loop that has the potential to expand the good for everyone involved. The more gratitude we feel, the more we’ll act in a prosocial way towards others, which will encourage their feelings of gratitude which will make them more prosocial … and so goes a beautiful cycle of gratitude.
How do I practice gratitude?
There are plenty of ways to practice gratitude, but however it’s done, it’s important that it’s done with consistency and novelty. Our brains like novelty. They love it actually. They quickly adapt to anything that stays constant. This is why the joy we feel for things that have us swooning in the beginning, soon lose their shimmer. Our brains adapt and when they do, they go looking for the next special thing. Gratitude can change this. With gratitude, we’re constantly giving our brains something new and positive to focus on (provided we practice gratitude for different things, not the same thing). Being grateful for the same things every day, even if they are important and worthy of enormous gratitude, won’t have the same effect on the brain as finding something positive and new each time.
As for consistency, it sounds easy enough to practice gratitude consistently, but if negative feelings tend to cosy up to you to quickly, it might be more difficult than you expect. To work around this, start small. Things that take more effort will always seem further away and more difficult – that makes sense. The more difficult they are, the less likely you’ll be to see it through. Here are some other ways to practice.
3 things a day, for 21 days.
For 21 days, write down three things that had happened in the previous 24 hours that you’re grateful for. They can be things in the world or things that have happened in yours, and they can be as big or as small as you want – the breeze on your skin when you walked, a warm bed to sleep in, coffee when you woke up. According to Harvard happiness researcher Shawn Achor, doing this for 21 days will train your brain to look at the world in a different way. It will start to scan the world for positives instead of for threats. It’s important that the things you find in the world to be grateful for are new and specific. So rather than, ‘I’m grateful for my friends’, try, ‘I’m grateful for Sally because of the way she made me laugh today.’
Take a positive experience …
Whether it’s a text you received, or catching up with someone you like, find a positive experience and spend two minutes writing down every detail about it. Write them in list form and do it for 21 days. According to Achor, as you remember positive experiences, your brain labels it as meaningful and the imprint in your brain deepens. The brain can’t tell the difference between an actual experience and a visualisation so calling on a positive experience after it’s happened doubles the feel-good in your brain. The idea is that after 21 days it will become a habit and it will change the way your brain looks at and receives the world.
Write letters (it’s okay – you don’t have to send them).
Spend 20 minutes a week writing a letter to someone you’re thankful for. Whether or not you send it is up to you. The effect of this stays for months after the initial exercise. Researchers described the changes in the brain as ‘profound’ and ‘long-lasting’. One of the changes were a greater sensitivity to gratitude. What this means is that noticing the good now makes it easier to notice the good later. The more good you notice, the happier you’ll be.It’s just the way it works, and practising gratitude is a simple way to work it.
And finally …
Gratitude rewires our brain so we become more likely to focus on the positives in the world than the negatives. We’re not going to become ignorant of danger if we appreciate the positives for a little while but we will become more open to the good. Our brains will always seek the things that keep us safe, but we also need the things that nurture our happiness and emotional well-being.