how to practice gratitude

THE SCIENCE OF GIVING THANKS

How practicing thankfulness re-wires the brain.

As Thanksgiving approaches, it just makes sense to take a moment to engage deeper with the idea of giving thanks. Many families have the tradition of going around the table to share their thanks, and despite the possible eye rolling from teens and tweens, it is a simple practice that can have profound impact on the brain.

Keep reading to learn how gratitude makes things better 

In the recent years, research has increased on the effects of gratitude on our physical body. Researchers are working diligently on the science of gratitude and their work has far reaching implications for all aspects of health and wellness. Brene Brown Ph.DRobert Emmons Ph.D and Alex Korb Ph.D  are just a few of the dedicated scientists who are instrumental in bringing research on gratitude to the forefront.

The reason gratitude, or thankfulness, is beckoning such high level research and researchers is largely due to the physical affects of gratitude the research is uncovering. It turns out being thankful creates and strengthens brain pathways leading to positive physical, social and emotional outcomes. A very simple daily practice can indeed affect the entire human system.

It has become clear in the past few years how gratitude changes and effects blood flow to the brain.  Zahn et al, 2009 in a NIH funded study found that increased gratitude increased the blood flow to the hypothalamus region of the brain. This part of the brain controls many different body functions including: eating, drinking, sleeping, stress, and metabolism. Activation of this part of the brain is associated with increased production of dopamine, the reward neurotransmitter.  Increased dopamine makes you more likely to do what you just did that caused the increase in production. This is how dopamine plays a roll in addictions- it makes you want the feeling again. Gratitude causes increased dopamine production triggering the brain to want more gratitude. This essentially “re-wires” the brain, or strengthens those brain pathways, in a beneficial way. Alex Korb Ph.D describes the dopamine response as “[engaging] the brain in a virtuous cycle.” Once you start seeing things to be grateful for, the brain starts looking for more to be grateful and as a result produces positive outcomes in other physical, psychological and social areas of the person’s life.

Effects of Gratitude

In research done with Robert Emmons, thousands of people have been studied from ages 8-80 and the results consistently show benefits achieved by people keeping gratitude journals for just three weeks with some only journaling their gratitude one time per week. Here are the benefits in specific areas:

Physical

  • Stronger immune systems
  • Less bothered by aches and pains
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Exercise more and take better care of their health
  • Sleep longer and feel more refreshed upon waking

Psychological

  • Higher levels of positive emotions
  • More alert, alive, and awake
  • More joy and pleasure
  • More optimism and happiness

Social

  • More helpful, generous, and compassionate
    More forgiving
  • More outgoing
  • Feel less lonely and isolated.

More Research

Three other studies of note show results that, hopefully, solidify for you the benefits of taking time even one time a week to physically write down what you are grateful for.

  1. Emmons and McCoullough (2003) found that practicing gratitude increased determination, attention, enthusiasm, and energy in those who practiced it compared to the control group who did not specifically practice gratitude through journaling (or simply listing what they are grateful for)
  2. In another study, by the same authors, looked at the effects of gratitude, but also if frequency of gratitude journaling affected outcomes. It turned out that just once weeklypractice of gratitude increased optimism in those participating in the study. They also found improvements in exercise patterns and decrease in physical pain. Participants reported they actually had fewer aches and pains. 
  3. A group of Chinese researchers (Ng et all, 2012) found that increase in gratitude resulted in better sleep and lower levels of anxiety and depression. They then asked the question if the improved sleep was the cause of less anxiety and depression, rather than gratitude. When the study was controlled for the amount of sleep, they found that the practice of gratitude still resulted in decreased depression scores. Lower anxiety scores were found to be linked to improved sleep (as a result of practicing gratitude) and not directly linked to gratitude. However, the evidence still clearly shows an indirect link to practicing gratitude and lower anxiety through the way of improved sleep.

Teens and Gratitude
We all know the teenage years are physically, psychologically and socially tumultuous. Helping teenagers practice gratitude can help them build their brain’s “virtuous cycle” resulting in stronger brain pathways towards optimism and positive outlook on life. But as Christine Carter, Ph.D realizes, getting teenagers engaged in the practice, especially those who need it most, can at times feel impossible. Check out her article for helpful tips on teens and gratitude. This short video from Brene Brown sheds light on her children’t experience practicing gratitude.
Give Thanks

This Thanksgiving, as you gather with family and friends, we encourage you to take the time to practice gratitude together and then continue at least weekly. The science behind this practice concludes it can only be good for you and those around you.

Resources

For tools to help learn how to practice gratitude, check out these resources:

Cultivate Gratitude 
40 Ways to Practice Gratitude 
How to Practice Gratitude 
Immanuel Journaling Practice 
4 Easy Ways to Practice Gratitude 

Short video of Brene Brown explaining what her research revealed on the link between gratitude and joy.

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