From Thankful to Thriving - The Transformative Power Of Gratitude
Holiday season has officially kicked off. Safeway has little Christmas trees out front, and Homegoods is teeming with decorations. But before we can jump into Christmas (or Chanukah, Kwanza, or whatever holiday you celebrate) we first must get through Thanksgiving. We have to acknowledge the questionable origins of Thanksgiving, and some of you might be looking forward to Friendsgiving more than Thanksgiving itself. Others of you might simply be spending the day with yourself to rest, relax, and recover. Whatever the case may be, while not everyone might love turkey and pie, we can all get something undeniably positive from Thanksgiving. What is it? The emphasis on gratitude.
Gratitude can actually change our brain. That's right, putting time aside to focus on the good things in our life is not just some silly practice that health influencers do, but a science backed way to improve your overall mood. But first, what is gratitude? It is defined as thankful appreciation for things, tangible or not, that an individual receives. The source of gratitude is generally centered around kindness, either from others through gifts or actions, or from kindness to oneself. Unlike joy however, gratitude is not an instantaneous response and must be mindfully cultivated.
So, what can gratitude do for us? It has been shown to help deepen relationships, and minimize negative emotions, and even negate negative effects of inflammation.
By practicing gratitude we can deepen our relationships. This can be with others, which might sound like - wow, it was so nice of Stephanie to organize a Friendsgiving! I appreciate her putting the time into it so that this group of people I care about and enjoy being around can have a nice meal together, connect, and have some fun. Gratitude can also deepen your connection with yourself, which might sound a bit more like this - I’m proud of myself for doing the turkey trot today. I value my health and am grateful for all my body does for me so want to keep it in good shape, and doing that run this morning allows me to keep my health up. Gratitude can also deepen your relationship with nature, or your spiritual/religious beliefs. For example, you might think to yourself on your walk in the park how wonderful the fresh air and light snowfall is. Instead of getting upset about the state of the roads, a person practicing gratitude might think “I’m grateful for the turn of the seasons. The snow blankets everything beautifully, lends a quite sense to the air, and makes the spring time that much more welcomed”. Studies have even shown that practicing gratefulness makes you more agreeable. In one study, 200 people within a company were asked to gratitude journal for 10 days. After that, others at the company were asked questions like ‘how many times did x call out another employee, push someone out of a conversation, ect’. The study found that those who wrote gratitude journals actually exhibited less non-desirable traits and actions.
When studying those who practiced gratitude, it was found that individuals had less depressive tendencies and scores. When people seeing therapists for depression were told to write gratitude journals, they showed greater improvement in symptoms compared to those just going to a therapist. One study showed that even just one session of gratitude practice, in this case writing a letter genuinely thanking someone who had not been properly thanked, caused greater optimism and general life satisfaction. Because practicing gratitude also strengthens relationships, as discussed above, those who practice it are also less likely to feel the negative effects of loneliness.
People who practice gratitude also were more likely to have greater physical health. They are more likely to exercise, eat well, and take fewer trips to the doctor. The impact of stress, specifically inflammation, was decreased even in the same socioeconomic situations which increased stress responses in people with low gratitude scores. Some of these health improvements can be attributed to improved sleep, which is critical for overall health.
So, how do you get started?
Gratitude takes practice. Like I mentioned before, its a more complex emotion that is not an instantaneous result of some kind of reward. Rather, it takes mindfulness to cultivate. One researcher advises to remember the three A’s. A number one is awareness. This is simply being aware that something in your life is good. It is included because it can be very easy to notice the bad, but if you are in a depressed state it can be difficult to pick out the good. Which brings us to A number two, appreciation. This deepens the awareness and makes you notice what it is about the thing that is good. For example, you could be aware that you like the chocolate that you were just given. But with appreciation you think ‘this chocolate is so rich, and the almond bits in it give it such an interesting fun texture!’. Lastly, there is attribution. It is important to think about who, or what, is responsible for this good thing. Using our last example, you could think ‘I appreciate that coworker who gave me the chocolate’. This might not always be another person, sometimes it's you who caused the good thing, or nature (like the snow), or whatever spiritual/religious system you believe in.
How To Get Started
At this point, you might be thinking gratitude sounds great, but how do I get started? You can start with a single letter. Like the study found, this is enough to improve mood and outlook for at least a month. Because it only takes a little bit of time, and doesn’t require much of a commitment, this might be a good way to get the ball rolling. Pick someone you never properly thanked, and just write them a letter in which you acknowledge that you were aware of the good thing they did. Describe it, then move to the second A, appreciation. Describe why you think the thing they did, said, or gave you was good. What about it made you feel joy, appreciation, comfort, ect. Lastly, give them credit. You don’t even have to mail the letter, just writing it is enough.
To establish a more routine practice, you can start a journal. It is a good idea to make a routine, so you stick to it. This could be 5 minutes every morning, or writing three things you were grateful for every other day before bed. Whatever system works for you is the right one. If you aren’t a writer, you can also do gratitude meditation. It is the same thing, you are just doing it all in your head without a pen or paper. If you lean more toward religion, you can pray about the things you are grateful for. Whichever method you choose, remember to incorporate the three A’s.
Once you start practicing gratitude, you might notice more and more in your life that is positive. Neurofeedback can help you integrate these shifts in perspective, and help you feel the positive effects even more then you would otherwise. If you find it challenging to even get started, neurofeedback can help you get over the bump, support your journey away from depression, and bring clarity to the aspects of your life in which gratitude is due.
P.S. If you find it difficult to think of positive things at first that's ok. It was found that people who practice gratitude don't always actually use more positive words than those who don't. Rather, they use less negative words and ideas. So, if you find yourself at a block and unable to think of good things, try shifting your perspective on the negative things. Instead of being upset about the fact your holiday pie didn’t turn out how you wanted, and be grateful you have food and an oven to cook it in, and notice what you learned so you can be a better baker in the future.