The Practice of Gratitude
Over the years, Thanksgiving has come to be one of my favorite holidays. I appreciate the fact that Thanksgiving is one of the few holidays where the logistics always work because it’s based on the the day of the week and isn’t subject to a specific date. For that reason (especially with a family), logistically, it’s a great holiday with at least 4-5 built in days for a great vacation. Second, the thanksgiving day meal still is my favorite meal of the year. There is something about the combination of turkey, dressing, and cranberry sauce that is hard to beat. Lastly, I love what the holiday represents – being thankful for what we have and who we have to share it with. I truly believe that if we can build in the concept of being grateful to being a weekly habit (instead of just an annual habit), then our lives will truly transform. It can be in the form of a gratitude session built into your weekly journaling, a gratitude statement that you read from daily, a daily/weekly voice memo you create expressing gratitude, a daily prayer, a gratitude letter you write to someone each week, incorporating a visualization of gratitude in a meditation session (similar to how Tony Robbins performs his), and other ways. Luckily, science has started to prove that people who consciously count their blessings tend to be happier and less depressed. Here are 4 factors about how practicing gratitude is good for our health:
1. Gratitude unshackles us from toxic emotions
Practicing gratitude shifts our attention away from toxic emotions, such as resentment and envy. When you write or express or read about how grateful you are to others and how much other people have blessed your life, it might become considerably harder for you to ruminate on your negative experiences. Studies have shown that it’s actually the lack of negative emotion words – not the abundance of positive words – that helps us have better long term mental health.
2. Gratitude helps even if you don’t share it
If you are unsure whether you want to share your gratitude with a particular person, it is still helpful to write it or express it even if the person you are grateful for doesn’t even receive it. You can decide later whether to send it (and I think it’s often a good idea to do so). But the mere act of writing or expressing it can help you appreciate the people in your life and shift your focus away from negative feelings and thoughts.
3. Gratitude’s benefits take time
If you participate in a gratitude writing or expressing activity, don’t be too surprised if you don’t feel dramatically better immediately after the writing. Be patient and remember that the benefits of gratitude might take time to kick in.
4. Gratitude has lasting effects on the brain.
Studies have shown that when people feel more grateful, their brain activity is distinct from brain activity related to guilt and the desire to help a cause. More specifically, when people who are generally more grateful give more money to a cause, they show greater neural sensitivity in the medial prefrontal cortex, a brain area associated with learning and decision making. This suggests that people who are more grateful are also more attentive to how they express gratitude.
Scientists have also found that people who express gratitude show greater activation in the medial prefrontal cortex. This finding suggests that practicing gratitude may help train the brain to be more sensitive to the experience of gratitude down the line and this could contribute to improved mental health over time.
Regardless of whether you’re facing serious psychological challenges, if you have never expressed gratitude in some fashion on a regular basis, then I encourage you to try it. Much of our time and energy is spent pursuing things we currently don’t have. Gratitude reverses our priorities to help us appreciate the people and things we do.