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How Practicing Gratitude Actually Changes Your Brain Chemistry + Some Easy Gratitude Exercises



Being grateful can be a little difficult sometimes. Occasionally, I will find myself humming one of the most "get-stuck-in-your-head" songs of all-time, All Star, by Smashmouth: "Life starts coming, and it don't stop coming." All of a sudden you have a million things to do and no time to do them. Maybe you slept through your alarm and are now late for work; maybe it's raining; maybe you fought with your partner, or friend, or family member... Whatever it may be, it can be easy to lose sight of the forest through the trees. During these moments, try stopping, taking five deep and slow breaths, and counting three things that you're grateful for. This little act can do wonders for your perspective.


4 Basic Facts About Gratitude

According to Robert Emmons, Ph.D., a leading psychologist and professor at UC Davis, there are four basic tenants to practicing gratitude.

  1. Gratitude allows us to celebrate the present.

  2. Gratitude blocks negative and toxic emotions, which can destroy our well-being.

  3. Grateful people are more stress-resilient.

  4. Gratitude strengthens social ties and self-worth.

If you would like to learn more about his perspective, check out his video. You can also read more about his perspective here.


5 Basic Gratitude Practices

  1. Keep a gratitude journal. Write between 3 and 10 things you're grateful for everyday. These can be very simple, like "I am grateful for the feeling of the air on my skin." I also encourage people to always include something about themselves in their list, like "I am grateful for my humor, personality, kindness, etc."

  2. Notice the beauty surrounding you. Take a moment to notice the smells around you; the feeling of your clothes on your skin; maybe a nearby building, or tree. Breathe slowly, and focus on something you find beautiful.

  3. Appreciate the people in your life. Think about someone you love and are grateful for.

  4. Savor the good. Focus on something that has happened this week that you felt was good. Savor it! Maybe close your eyes and visualize it!

  5. Share your gratitude with others. Let people know how important they are to you!


The Science Behind Gratitude

Most studies about gratitude have been conducted on adults without mental health concerns. However, in a study conducted by Joshua Brown, Ph.D., and Joel Wong, Ph.D., 300 participants seeking mental health care were recruited. At the commencement of the study, the majority of the participants reported clinically low levels of mental health. The study randomly divided the participants into three groups. In Group A, the participants were asked to write a letter of gratitude to someone each week for three weeks. In Group B, the participants were asked to write about their deepest thoughts associated with negative experiences. Group C acted as a control group and wrote nothing. All groups continued with counseling throughout the study. At the end of the study, Group A (the gratitude group) reported significantly better mental health 4 and 12 weeks post study.

It turned out that it was the not the presence of 'positive-emotion words' that was associated with better mental health outcomes; it was actually the absence of 'negative-emotion words.'

With these outcomes noted, the researchers then asked, 'how does practicing gratitude actually affect our mind and bodies'? The research team came up with four hypotheses. The first of these hypotheses is that "Gratitude unshackles us from toxic emotions." The research team examined the letters written by the participants for 'positive-emotion words,' 'negative-emotion words,' and 'we' words. Unsurprisingly, Group A (the gratitude group) had more 'positive-emotion words' and 'we' words than Group B. There's a caveat here, though! It turned out that it was the not the presence of 'positive-emotion words' that was associated with better mental health outcomes; it was actually the absence of 'negative-emotion words.'

Next, the researchers found that "Gratitude helps even if you don't share it." only 23% of Group A chose to share their letters with anyone, yet, they still reported more favorable post treatment outcomes. Hence, gratitude starts well before the moment of communication, it begins with the thought. Another finding of the study is that "Gratitude's benefits take time." There was no difference in mental health outcomes between the groups one week after the study. The differences began to be noted at 4 weeks and 12 weeks post study. How cool is that (I mean, I just find this really exciting)! The unfortunate fact about most positive activities is that their benefits decrease as time progresses... but this isn't true with gratitude! The researchers can only hypothesize as to why gratitude shows a steady increase of mental wellbeing. Some of their thoughts are that the participants who wrote about gratitude continued these conversations with their counsellors and friends after the study.

...simply practicing gratitude may train our brains to be more sensitive to experiences of gratitude in the future...

The last finding of the study was that "Gratitude has lasting effects on the brain." Three months after the study, the researchers compared Group A with Group C (the control group). The participants were given small amounts of money and asked that they pass the money along to someone or something. The participants could chose how much, if any, of the money to donate. The researchers asked the participants to rate their gratitude towards the benefactor of the money, how much they wanted to help the charitable cause of choice, and how guilty they felt if they chose not to donate. The participants also received a questionnaire to measure their overall gratitude in life. The researchers then used an fMRI scanner to measure the outcomes of this section of the study. The findings showed that gratitude brain activity is distinctly different than guilt and desire brain activity. Participants who displayed more gratitude and gave more showed more activity in the area of the brain associated with learning and decision making, the medial prefrontal cortex (and this was three months after they wrote their gratitude letters!). This indicates (but warrants further study) that simply practicing gratitude may train our brains to be more sensitive to experiences of gratitude in the future (Brown, 2017)! More research is needed, but studies like these give me hope in the power of our mindset. Today might be a good day to write a letter of gratitude!


If you have any questions, or would like to speak further, please reach out! You can find me at eleanor@allumeacupuncture.com or @allume.acupuncture on Instagram.


ReferencO,

Brown, Joshua Brown Joshua, and Joel Wong Joel Wong. “How Gratitude Changes You and Your Brain.” Greater Good, 6 June 2017, https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/how_gratitude_changes_you_and_your_brain.

“Gratitude Definition: What Is Gratitude.” Greater Good, https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/topic/gratitude/definition#why_practice.





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