Enjoy the little things. For one day you may look back and realize they were the big things.” – Robert Brault
It feels good to cultivate gratitude. It’s a practice that can be done anytime, anywhere, is free and accessible to all. When we’re grateful, it’s hard to be angry or stressed or bitter. Gratitude is an emotion that strengthens relationships (with others and ourselves), and builds trust. Here, we’ll dive into the science of how gratitude supports well-being, and some tools to integrate daily moments of gratitude into your day.
Before we dive in, it’s important to highlight that when things are going “well”, listing off things we’re grateful for can come with relative ease. But what if we’re in the thick of it? Does practicing gratitude have the same impact of uplifting our spirits? Studies show that yes – cultivating moments of feeling grateful has a positive impact for those who struggle with mental health concerns.
Gratitude changes our brains
By thinking of or writing out things we’re grateful for, we shift our focus away from heavy emotions like resentment, anger, jealousy, grief etc. This moves us away from rumination, and starts to support neuroplasticity, or the rewiring of our brains to hone in on things we deem positive or uplifting. The more we practice gratitude, the more receptive we become to it as those neural connections become stronger and more developed. We start to see, feel and seek grateful moments. All of a sudden, a garden we pass by on our walk to work stands out as beautiful, and we pause to savor the colours and textures and smells. When our partner comes home from work, we look at them differently, with more appreciation and awe. When we complete a workout, run, hike etc., we feel a rush of thanks for our health and the ability to move that way.
This randomized control study revealed that women who had a regular gratitude practice reduced amygdala activity in the brain, which is the region responsible for fear and typically quite active in those working through anxiety. This is a strong incentive to practice gratitude regularly to reduce fear-related thoughts that contribute to anxiety. Amazingly, this shift in amygdala activity was accomplished in just 5 minutes of gratitude practice.
The study also showed a reduction in inflammatory markers, or cytokines TNF-α and IL-6, in those who regularly cultivated gratitude; in other words, it had an anti-inflammatory effect. The effect is similar to that which is observed through pharmaceutical use or post-exercise, which is pretty powerful.
A regular gratitude practice has also been shown to increase the production and release of serotonin , a neurotransmitter that promotes a feel-good mood.
Benefits social relationships
Practicing gratitude promotes prosocial behaviour – think actions that bring us into closer relation to others – which enhances our interpersonal relationships, including the one we have with ourselves. This shift towards prosocial behaviours, which induces a shift away from defensive behaviours, allows us to feel happier thanks to the strengthening of those prosocial networks in the brain and the weakening of the defensive circuits.
This practice doesn’t necessarily have to be daily – the effects have been shown to be supportive even just a few times a week. Most gratitude practices suggest writing a list of 5-10 things you’re grateful for. Yet this isn’t necessarily the most effective way to change your brain and wire towards happiness. However, when paired with an arousal or the anatomic nervous system (a sympathetic state), it’s been shown to be more effective. An arousal of the nervous system can be induced by:
- Sympathetic breathwork
- Movement – cardio, lifting weights, etc.
- Deliberate hot/cold exposure
Some prompts to integrate into your daily practice. The key is to get specific, use your imagination and really hone in on the details. This can be written, typed, reflected on in meditation or on a walk, post-movement, while you shower, while you wait for your coffee…it can be done for literally 1 minute as the activation of the neural circuits is instantaneous.
- What are you grateful for in this current moment?
- What is something are you grateful for that happened yesterday?
- What’s something that you are looking forward to?
So, perhaps pair your breathwork practice, post-movement, cold shower etc. with your gratitude reflection.
Here is a lovely 6 minute gratitude practice from researcher Kelly McGonigal, if you prefer to be guided.
Interestingly, the most effective way to benefit from a gratitude practice is to ground it in a narrative of receive gratitude, versus giving gratitude. To cultivate this sense of receiving gratitude, you can visualize situations or stories where an individual helped another. The human brain is oriented towards story, so this is a creative yet simple way to hone in on that feeling of gratitude in the most impactful way. Bring to mind examples of prosocial behaviour – from a movie, a book, an instance shared by a friend or family member, or, a moment where you were doing something nice for another and you received their gratitude. For example – I can make a list of things that I am gracious for, or I can visualize the moment where on Sunday, a student came up to me and said something really lovely about how the class had made them feel. The latter is going to give me the most “bang for my buck” in terms of leaning into the feeling of gratitude.
A practice: Begin and close every day with visualizing a recent memory of when you received gratitude from another. Write it out, say it out loud to a partner, or just bring that moment to the forefront of your mind.
Another practice: Visualize a story that involves giving and receiving, and imagine what it felt like being the individual on the receiving end. Pick a story that you find particularly compelling. This can be from a book, TV show, movie, etc.
With both of these practices, we can observe a change in our heart rate and breathing, taking us into an altered, typically more relaxed (parasympathetic) state, or a heightened state of joy or awe. Such a potent tool where our psychology shifts our physiology.
The more we practice gratitude, the more gratitude we can cultivate. To celebrate the art of gratitude, we’re inviting you to bring a friend for free to all 6am, 8:15am, 11am and 6:30pm classes for the month of October, starting Monday, October 10th. To gift a guest pass, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org with your friend/lover/family member’s name, their e-mail and the class(es) of choice and and we will sign them up to join you :)