When you spend your days looking for the good in them, you start to notice and appreciate the little things. As a benefit, you might start to change your perspective on life, your overall health, and your brain.
In today’s “never enough” culture, it is easy to start feeling like an ordinary life is unfulfilling. The good news is that you can change that with one simple practice: gratitude.
A couple of years ago, a relative gave me the book, One Thousand Gifts, by Ann Voskamp, which is about gratitude. Ann, was not in a good place. After being challenged by someone, she decided to keep a gratitude journal where she wrote down one thousand things that she was grateful for. It changed her life for the better. Her book is written from a Christian perspective, but the challenge she takes on can be practiced regardless of your religious belief or disbelief.
Overall Benefits of Gratitude
Scientific research is proving gratitude affects your well-being in a number of ways. Robert Emmons, who has studied gratitude for more than ten years, states in a Medical Daily article, by Stephanie Castillo, that our “physical health (stronger immune system and sleep time), psychological well-being (increased positive emotions), and [ ] our personal relationships with others (more helpful, less lonely)” are improved when we practice gratitude. In other words, we might find ourselves becoming happier and healthier!
Gratitude Makes You Healthier
National Institute of Health researchers “found that subjects who showed more gratitude overall had higher levels of activity in the hypothalamus. This is important because the hypothalamus controls a huge array of essential bodily functions, including eating, drinking and sleeping. It also has a huge influence on your metabolism and stress levels. From this evidence on brain activity it starts to become clear how improvements in gratitude could have such wide-ranging effects, from increased exercise and improved sleep to decreased depression and fewer aches and pains.” (How Gratitude Actually Changes Your Brain, Carrie D. Clarke, JD, ACC – thriveglobal.com) Who doesn’t want to lower stress levels, sleep better, and experience fewer aches and pains?
Gratitude Improves Personal Relationships
Dr. Emiliana Simon-Thomas, director of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, has worked with “Emmons to expand the science of gratitude.” Her findings, based on brain scans of individuals who practiced gratitude for eight weeks, showed they had “stronger brain structure for social cognition [how we process, store, and apply information about other people and social situations] and empathy [the ability to understand and share the feelings of another], as well as the part of the brain that processes reward.” The bottom line is our social interactions with other people improves. Our brain rewards us when we are grateful.
Gratitude Rewards Our Brain
How the brain rewards us can get complicated. Without going into the science of how the brain works, and there is plenty to read on the subject, if you are interested *, neurotransmitters signal pleasure in the ventromedial prefontal cortex of the brain when people practice gratitude. Simply put, our brain tells us that we feel good, just by having a little gratitude. That can bring a smile to your face – literally.
Gratitude Rewires Our Brain**
So, maybe you are asking why anyone would want to rewire their brain. Here are a handful of possibilities: anxiety, depression, trauma, addiction, anger, and grief. To rewire your brain, making permanent changes, requires that you retrain your brain.
I am not a scientist, and I am going to break this down the best I can, but please do not rely on me to be completely accurate. It seems most things go through the prefrontal cortex (PFC) of your brain for processing. Memories, we are talking about the bad stuff, get stored in the amygdala, which replays them like a broken record, over and over. Your brain tries to protect itself (YOU), and then your brainstem gets involved and puts you into fight, flight or freeze mode. In order to stop that response, the PFC has to be taught to focus on something else. It sneaks in through the amygdala’s back door and makes some changes, so that bad stuff stops replaying that record, like a bad story that never ends. It is not as easy as it sounds, but it can be done.
The best time to work at making these brain changes is when you are feeling good, really good. There are a lot of ways to go about this, but we are focusing on gratitude. Start practicing gratitude. Be intentional! Look for new things to be grateful for every day (even when the bad stuff of life happens). How we practice gratitude matters, and it also requires us to practice, practice, practice! Writing a gratitude journal can be one of the more effective ways to start rewiring your brain. Gradually, your brain’s PFC is going to start to perceive situations differently because we have changed our focus. So, we have come full circle, to keeping a gratitude journal.
You might not be looking to rewire your brain, and your life might be hunky dory (which is also a great David Bowie album) at the moment. Maybe you already practice gratitude and know its benefits. Awesome!
Maybe you could use a little brain rewiring, and you have a desire for the benefits gratitude can give you, like better physical and psychological health, and better personal relationships; a new perspective on life.
I dare you to try to write 1000 things you are grateful for. It takes a while, but it is worth every grateful moment.
P.S. One of the little things I am grateful for is my bird feeder. It is unusual for a red-headed woodpecker to show up there, and I was more than excited when this one arrived one day. He has never returned. But for that day, I was filled up with gratitude. I had to take this photo through the slats in the venetian blinds and the glass on my back door. If I opened the door, or even went out the front door and ran around to the back yard, I was afraid I’d scare him away.
* From an article on the Brain Reward System: CogniFit – Health, Brain & Neuroscience
** Unf#ck Your Brain – Using Science to Get Over Anxiety, Depression, Anger, Freak-outs, and Triggers, by Faith G. Harper, PhD, LPC-S, ACS, ACN (Great, informative, funny read.)