Thanksgiving, a time when families hold hands, say something they are grateful for, and then feast on a giant meal. While I love mashed potatoes as much as the next person, let’s take a moment to be grateful for gratitude. Practicing gratitude daily has been shown to make us happier, physically fitter, and improve our social relationships. This week, let’s take a look at the science behind gratitude, why it’s hard to stay grateful, and how to practice thankfulness.
How does gratitude help my anxiety?
Mom and dad have been telling us to be grateful and say ‘thank you’ since before we could talk. As it turns out, they were on to something! When we are stressed or anxious, our body’s sympathetic nervous system is activated, releasing adrenaline and cortisol. When our brain decides the threat has passed, it sends signals to the body activating the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps us calm down. Engaging in gratitude helps to facilitate the activation of the parasympathetic nervous system resulting in calmness in our body and our mind. How much does it help? When practicing gratitude, cortisol (the stress hormone) is reduced by up to 23%!
How does gratitude help my depression?
In addition to our body feeling calmer and our anxiety decreasing, our brain gets a boost in happiness when we give or receive thanks. The neurotransmitters, dopamine and serotonin, are activated when we are grateful. These neurotransmitters signal to the brain to release feelings of happiness and mood stabilization. Dopamine and Serotonin are usually targeted in anxiety and depression medications, so gratitude is acting as a natural antidepressant. By practicing gratitude daily, we can build stronger neural pathways; this will allow for our brain to create a shortcut between engaging in gratitude and getting a dopamine and serotonin boost.
How does gratitude help me physically?
It turns out, serotonin and dopamine are not only helpful in improving mood, but in improving our body! Serotonin and dopamine help improve sleep, motivation, and memory. These amazing neurotransmitters can also lower the amount of pain we feel. Meanwhile, with less stress hormones in the body, blood pressure can decrease which can lead to a healthier heart.
How does gratitude help my relationships?
Want to boost your popularity? Gratitude may be the answer you have been looking for. When people practice gratitude, they are more likely to be viewed as trustworthy, social and appreciative. People who are grateful tend to have a wider social network and report having happier and healthier relationships. This social network helps insulate them from life’s ups and downs while decreasing the intensity of depression and anxiety. Additionally, showing genuine appreciation to others improves the quality of the relationship. Whether it is a child, a parent, a partner, or a friend, make sure to express your appreciation to strengthen your bond.
Why is it hard to stay Grateful?
Humans are very resilient and can adapt to most challenges. This is what helped us to evolve into the apex predators we are today. However, our ability to adapt is also the reason that we take things for granted and forget to be grateful. Hedonic adaptation is the cycle that the human brain goes through to adapt to a new event. In terms of gratitude, the cycle looks like this:
- Desire for something we want
- Work to get what we want
- Get what we want
- Enjoy what we wanted
- Desire more of what we want
- Repeat cycle
At step 5, the Adapt phase, we are moving back to our baseline of happiness and gratitude. Did you ever want a toy for your birthday? You were so happy when you got it and then 2 months later it was in the back of your closet? You adapted to having something you wanted. Fear not, we are not doomed to take things for granted! By practicing gratitude, we can draw attention to what we have obtained and repeat the “enjoy” stage of this cycle.
How can I be more Grateful?
Great question! There are many ways to implement gratitude into your life. Therapy is a great place to start incorporating gratitude into your daily life. Talk to your therapist about how to express gratitude towards yourself and others to help you manage your mental health. To be more grateful, you can engage in listing, journaling, writing letters, or saying affirmations. For now, here is an empirically supported exercise that has been shown to improve gratitude and happiness.
The University of California, Berkeley has developed a gratitude exercise that has been shown to improve happiness for up to 6 months. Give this a try in your daily life and look for the benefits that this article has outlined.
In this exercise, you are going to spend about 15 minutes identifying 3 things that went well today. Try to think of positive things that were specific to today (e.g. “I made it to work on time” or, “my friend said she liked my shirt”) rather than general positive things (e.g. “I am currently breathing” or, “I have indoor plumbing”).
- Give the event a title. Think of this like you are naming a movie or a chapter in a book. It can be serious or silly as long as it makes sense to you.
- Write out the event in as much detail as possible. This can be a paragraph, a list, a poem, a song; whatever format you like. Think of who, what, where, when, why, how and what your 5 senses were experiencing.
- Reviewing your description of the event, reflect on how you felt in that moment. If you are having a hard time thinking of how you felt, consider if these words resonate with you: supported, loved, comforted, heard, appreciated, accepted, safe, wanted, connected, considered, hopeful.
- Consider what caused the positive thing to happen. These can be big things or little things. They can be from 5 seconds before the event or 5 years before the event. Examples: building a healthy friendship with the person, traffic, having $5 stashed in your glove box, mom wanting to show she loved me so she left me a note.
Still, want to know more about gratitude? Check out these sources for more information!
The Neuroscience of Gratitude and How It Affects Anxiety & Grief (positivepsychology.com)
28 Benefits of Gratitude & Most Significant Research Findings (positivepsychology.com)
Gratitude Helps Minimize Feelings of Stress | Psychology Today
The Science Behind Gratitude – How to Practice Gratitude (happify.com)
Three Good Things | Practice | Greater Good in Action (berkeley.edu)
Podcast | Greater Good (berkeley.edu)