Author: Carrie Myers
November is Gratitude Month, which is an amazing reminder that there is always something to be thankful for. But what about the rest of the year? We tend to treat gratitude like it’s something we can use as a holiday decoration and then pack it away until the next year. But, gratitude is important to practice throughout the year. What do I mean by practicing gratitude?
And why does practicing gratitude matter? Keep reading…
Your Brain on Gratitude
Your brain is made up of billions of cells. These cells have “arms” that reach out and attach to each other. This is how nerve pathways are formed. But these pathways don’t just happen by coincidence or chance. They’re formed when thoughts and actions are repeated.
Can you say habits?
So, if your habit is one of complaining, procrastinating, or having a generally negative attitude, you’ve created pathways in your brain. These then become your automatic go-to reactions to life circumstances.
But the opposite works, too.
If you start practicing gratitude and being thankful for what you have, what opportunities are coming your way (even if you don’t know what those are yet!), and who is in your life, you begin to change your brain. You begin to create new nerve pathways. This happens thanks to neuroplasticity—the brain’s amazing ability to adapt and form new pathways.
As the saying goes, neurons that wire together, fire together (remember from biology class…your nervous system is like a little electrical system within your body). And it’s this wiring and firing that is the basis of neuroplasticity.
Turns out, you can, indeed, teach your brain new tricks.
This doesn’t happen overnight, though. It takes consistent practice—and practicing gratitude is one way to do this. And by practicing I mean being intentional and purposely taking the time each day to find what you’re thankful for, even when you’re having “one of those days.”
Little Johnny wrote all over the wall—again? Be thankful you have walls for him to write on.
Little Janie pulled the potted plant over on top of herself, got a bump on her forehead, spilled potting soil, broke the pot, and is now crying hysterically? Be thankful you have a child to comfort and snuggle with.
As you practice this mindset of gratitude, over time, you will use the negative-centric pathways less, and they won’t be so loud and automatic. With that said, they won’t completely disappear either. I mean, if we only wore the proverbial rose-colored glasses, we wouldn’t be alerted to danger—like when your kid is reaching for that hot pan. Or a car pulls out in front of you.
Some “negative” pathways are necessary to keep you safe. It’s when they rule your world that they become a problem.
Here’s another amazing thing about gratitude. You can immediately feel its effects on your brain and body. This is not from the act of neuroplasticity, though, since that takes time. This is due to your brain’s neurotransmitters—those chemicals that make you feel one way or the other. In this case, we can thank dopamine and serotonin for that immediate feel-good, warm-fuzzy feeling when we practice gratitude.
Making Gratitude a Habit
Ready to give a gratitude practice a try? First a few reminders…
There’s a reason this is called a gratitude practice. It takes practice to focus on gratitude. And if you’ve been drenched in negativity lately—or for most of your life—it’s going to take more practice and it will be more difficult—but still very doable (and worth it!).
Remember, those negative pathways in your brain are well-worn. They’ve been your go-to. And forming new pathways takes time.
My fellow VitaMom, Ashley, explains that the well-worn pathways are like highways. They’re fast and get you to your destination more quickly.
Now think about bushwhacking a new path. You’ll need the right tools, it’s going to take time, and you won’t use that new path right away. But the more work you put into that new path, the more familiar it becomes to you and the more likely you are to use it.
Speaking of which…
If you’ve made Negative Nelly or Debbie Downer part of your identity, being negative feels safe, familiar, and comfortable—even if you’re miserable and know it. Being positive and expressing gratitude will most likely not feel good at first, despite the dopamine and serotonin boost. This is because those feelings are not familiar to you. They’re not “safe.”
Now, we could go down a rabbit hole at this point, but we’ll save that for another time. For now, here are a few ideas based on Positive Psychology that you can start using today.
Three Good Things
There was a study published in 2005 that used healthcare practitioners as study participants. It was called the Three Good Things Intervention. Since then, its results have been replicated, which means their validity is strengthened (in other words, they’re more likely to be true).
The reason this group was used was due to the high burnout rate among medical professionals. The gist of the study was to have them write down three good things that happened that day and what their role was in it.
What they found was that when Three Good Things was practiced, participants were happier, more resilient, and experienced less burnout.
Some interpretations of the study also say participants slept better. I’ve been using this tool myself at bedtime to help me fall asleep faster. I’ve been practicing it long enough now that I often don’t make it to good thing #2 or #3.
You can use the same intervention on yourself. Writing it down helps to solidify it more in your brain, but if you don’t have the energy for that at bedtime, focus your thoughts on 1. What went well today? And 2. What role did I play in it?
This is especially great if your mind tends to start “Rolodexing” on that hamster wheel as soon as your head hits the pillow. If your thoughts start drifting away from gratitude, just bring them back to the center of your brain and heart.
While I often don’t get to what my role was (again…zzz), if you can do it, give it a try. It might help increase your confidence when you realize that you have more control over many situations than you might think. And, you might start looking for ways to improve situations that you previously thought were out of your control.
Hence, why Three Good Things helps with resilience. When you realize you have some level of control over something you didn’t think you had any control over—even if that “thing” is your attitude—you become more resilient in those situations.
Letter of Gratitude
Who would you like to thank today?
We often get so wrapped up in our lives that we forget that we didn’t get here alone.
Writing a letter of gratitude telling someone how much you appreciate them and what they do not only gives them warm fuzzies but also brings you a shot of happiness, as well.
The Gratitude Letter is another evidence-based Positive Psychology tool that has been shown to increase positive emotions—for both the giver and receiver.
According to Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, the Gratitude Letter tool, “affirms positive things in your life and reminds you how others have cared for you—life seems less bleak and lonely if someone has taken such a supportive interest in us. Visiting the giver allows you to strengthen your connection with them and remember how others value you as an individual.”
Think of someone you haven’t thanked—maybe have even taken for granted—and write them a letter expressing your gratitude for them. The letter does not have to be long. Take about 10 minutes to write it.
Here’s the part that is tough for some—deliver it in person.
If that’s not possible, give them a call or have a video chat.
The first time is always the most difficult, especially if all this gratitude stuff is new to you. After you’ve done this once and see how it positively affects the other person, you’ll start thinking of others and over time, thanking people and telling them how much you appreciate them will become second nature.
Keep a Gratitude Journal
Practicing gratitude doesn’t have to be complicated. Get a notebook and make it a habit each day to write down at least one thing you’re thankful for and why.
The “why” and the “writing it down” are what will help you make this a habit more quickly.
The more senses you get involved, the more cemented into your brain this will become.
When you write something down, you’re using touch and sight. Now speak it out loud. You’ve added speech and hearing. Lean into how it feels to express gratitude. You’re going to want more of that feeling (unless, of course, it feels uncomfortable because you’re so comfortable with feeling negative about everything).
Why include why you’re thankful for your gratitude?
It’s easy to say, “Oh, I’m thankful for the roof over my head,” but when you get to the deeper reasons why you’re thankful for that roof, it means more and it helps bushwhack that new pathway more quickly.
Start a Gratitude Jar
Gratitude isn’t just for adults. The earlier you teach your children to practice gratitude, you’re helping to form those pathways in their brains—which means you’re giving them a solid foundation for adulting.
Make gratitude a family affair.
A fun way to integrate gratitude into your family is to start a gratitude jar. Keep paper near it and encourage your kids to write at least one thing they’re thankful for each day, including other people and why. The jar can be opened at the end of the week and read as a family. Or save it for “those days” when everyone needs a reminder to be thankful.
The Bottom Line
People who practice gratitude tend to be happier, healthier, and more resilient than people who don’t. Practicing gratitude does not mean being oblivious to potential danger, sadness, or grief—nor does it mean having to deny when your kids or spouse are driving you crazy.
It simply helps pivot your mindset from one of lack and always focusing on what you don’t have to one of abundance and being grateful for what you do have.
For those situations where you can’t find anything to be thankful for, consider the lesson you can take from it and apply it to your life.
Practicing gratitude takes consistency and time. Before you know it, noticing the good will come more naturally. And who knows? You might even find yourself being thankful for those hard times because that is where your growth happens.