Gratitude: How Gratitude Improves Brain Health
First, I’d like to wish all my American friends and family a Happy Thanksgiving. I hope the day is filled with love, laugher, and camaraderie. Enjoy a day (or two) to relax, to unwind, and to enjoy all in life that you hold dear.
Yes, Thanksgiving officially kicks off holiday season! Though some of you may have already been in the spirit, today officially marks the start of holiday season.
Most of us look forward to time spent with family and friends. Time to enjoy this festive time of year and share our good fortune with others. In fact, many of us have already started celebrating or anticipating the holidays at the very least.
Yet for others, the holidays can be a challenge, often fraught with anxiety, financial worries, depression, and sadness. If you feel overwhelmed or down when this time of year rolls around, keep reading - I’m about to give you reason to be thankful.
Practicing gratitude goes a lot further than saying “thanks” - it can actually improve your brain health!
What is Gratitude?
The word gratitude comes from the Latin word gratia, which means grace, gratefulness, or graciousness. It is a thankful appreciation for all tangible and intangible things you receive or have, and an acknowledgement of the goodness in your life.
We all have things we are grateful for. For some of us, they may be physical objects or tangible things. For others, they may be people, like family, beloved friends, or generous strangers. And for others, they may be concepts like health or dreams.
Regardless of what you have to be thankful for, expressing gratitude can go a long way to improving brain function.
Who Said it’s Easy?
9 Surprising Ways Gratitude can Improve Brain Health
Gratitude increases happiness - Gratitude is associated with greater happiness, and helps us feel more positive emotions. Anything that improves your mood also improves the state of your mental health.
Gratitude reduces depression - By reducing toxic emotions like envy, resentment and regret, gratitude improves our overall well-being and reduces feelings of depression or sadness.
Gratitude helps us sleep better - When we consistently express gratitude, especially when we write down a few grateful sentiments before going to bed, it changes the way we think. This positive change in thought patterns before turning out the light can help you get a more restful and longer sleep.
Gratitude reduces aggression - Grateful people are more likely to exhibit positive behaviour in public, even when others are not so kind. They tend to be less vengeful and are unlikely to retaliate. Instead, grateful people are more sensitive and show empathy toward others.
Gratitude fosters resilience - Recognizing what you have to be thankful for, especially when faced with tragedy or turmoil, helps foster resilience. Gratitude also works to reduce stress and help people overcome trauma and adversity. Being thankful for what they have encourages them to stick with it, work harder, and surpass all obstacles.
Gratitude improves self-esteem - Expressing gratitude can increase ones self-esteem to improve performance while reducing negative social comparisons. Instead of being resentful toward someone else who may have more money or a better job, grateful people are better able to appreciate the other person’s accomplishments because they feel good about themselves.
Gratitude increases positive decision-making - When people express gratitude, their brain activity changes, and neurons in the part of the brain associated with learning and decision making become more sensitive. Neuro-plasticity and an increased sensitivity of neurons in this part of the brian helps us remain flexible, keeps us open to new ideas, and encourages us to make good decisions.
Gratitude can slow aging - Gratitude has been shown to reduce inflammation and slow the aging process by lengthening telomeres. Telomeres are like the little plastic caps on the end of a shoelace that prevent the fibres from unravelling, except telomeres prevent the ends of your chromosomes from unravelling. The length of your telomeres can impact how quickly your DNA unravels and how quickly you age.
Gratitude has a lasting impact on mental health - The simple act of expressing gratitude creates lasting effects on the brain and suggests that practicing gratitude trains the brain to become more sensitive to grateful experiences later on. This can contribute to improved mental health over time.
The impact of how gratitude improves brain health is interesting for both neuroscientists as well as the rest of us. Research suggests that the more we practice gratitude and the longer we allow our brain to be in this positive state, the more it adapts to this mindset.
Expressing feelings of gratefulness and gratitude regularly will only strengthen these feelings over time, stimulating a healthy, self-perpetuating cycle in your brain. While the opposite holds true - if you constantly think about the negative aspect of every situation, focus on problems, or dwell on what you’re afraid of, parts of your brain will actually deactivate.
Ways to Cultivate Gratitude: Developing an Attitude of Gratitude
There are various ways to cultivate gratitude, and how you choose to do so is entirely up to you. But if you are looking for a new way of being grateful or would like to start expressing your gratitude today, what follows are a few ideas you may want to try.
Doing so can help you refocus on what you have in life that’s good, rather than focus on what you’re missing. This can be a challenge, especially if you are facing adversity or experiencing any kind of hardship. After all, it’s easier to think about what’s going wrong rather than recognize what’s going right.
This holds true in all areas of life. But the more you start looking for the good, the more you’re going to start seeing it in everything and everyone.
Write a thank you note - Simply writing a thank-you letter or note to express your enjoyment or appreciation to another person for the impact they’ve had on your life can make you (and them) happier. Mail it or deliver it in person. Then make a habit of sending one gratitude letter each month. And of course, feel free to write one to yourself from time to time. After all, loving yourself is the greatest gift you can give!
Thank someone mentally - Even the act of thinking about sending someone thanks can be enough to cultivate the positive benefits of expressing gratitude. So even if you do not feel comfortable sending your thank you notes, write them anyway. Alternatively, if you have no time to write, it can help just to think about someone who’s done something nice for you, and send positive thoughts their way.
Keep a gratitude journal - Make it a habit to write down 3 things you are grateful for each day. The best time to do this is in the evening before you settle down for the night. Reflect on your day and pick any 3 things (or more) that went well or things that you are grateful for. Start each line by writing “I am grateful for…” This can sometimes be a challenge, but don’t take anything for granted. Even if it’s hard to think of something positive, there are many things we all have to be grateful for including the food we nourish our body with, hot running water, a conversation with a loved one, a smile exchanged with a stranger, a walk outside, the sound of birds chirping, the roof over your head, time spent relaxing in a hot bath or with a good book. If none of these resonate with you, be grateful for your ability to breathe, for the strength to get out of bed that morning, for a refreshing glass of water, or a hot cup of tea. The more time you spend thinking about what went right, the easier it will become.
Start off on a positive note - Every morning when you wake up, start the day right by putting yourself in a positive frame of mind. While still in bed, before turning on the light or looking at your phone, lay there and think about what you are grateful for. It can be as simple as being grateful for a full night’s sleep, for your warm and cozy bed, for the roof over your head, for the sound of your loved one breathing beside you, for your cat curled up at your feet. Anything you can think of - just keep it positive and smile into the space around you. Then when you do get out of bed, it will be with a smile in your heart.
Meditate - Meditation or mindfulness involves focusing on the present moment without judgment. You can focus on a word or phrase, like “love” or “peace”, or you can focus on what you're grateful for. Meditation is a powerful tool that has been shown to reduce anxiety, lessen the effects of stress, improve moods, and help sleep. It helps clear the stress hormones from your body and floods the brain with dopamine and serotonin to help you feel better and more relaxed.
For me, I do a combination of these. Every day I meditate and write (or at least think) about what I am grateful for. Some days the list is long. Other days, it’s not. But I always have things to be thankful for…
my love of cooking
my morning dog walks
my ability to teach and transform lives
the beautiful mountain scenery I enjoy daily
my beautiful home office filled with lovely books; and
you - my faithful readers!
my loving husband
my quirky dog
my nutrition business
my family (even though they are miles away)
Just creating this list made me smile. And there is so much more I have to be thankful for! Paying attention to all the good things in your life is so powerful, it can lift anyone up!
What do you have to be thankful for?
As always, I’d love to hear what you think. Send me an email or comment below with your gratitude list.