Maintaining a Gratitude Mindset
Practicing gratitude can be done in many ways. Personally, I do my best to maintain a gratitude mindset wherever I go in life. I’m always curious about how this situation (even if it is a bad one) is serving me. Reminding myself that life happens for me rather than to me, I feel an undeniable shift in both my mind and body. Many other people keep journals where they make gratitude lists, or they write letters of gratitude to people in their lives. All forms of gratitude practice are beneficial and impactful. Recent research has been illuminating what makes gratitude practices effective and as potent as possible, and that’s the information I want to leave you with today.
Gratitude practices exist in a very unique space in the realm of self-care. It has the potential to be an incredibly potent practice, with impacts that span both mental and physical wellbeing. Acquiring these benefits doesn’t require the time nor frequency of practice that many other self-care practices (such as exercise, meditation, or journaling) require in order to see results. Current research is showing that simply practicing gratitude for the merest of moments, even while performing physical tasks (like walking to your car or doing the dishes) can evoke near immediate neurochemical and physiological shifts. Looking at the impacts that gratitude practices can have, it’s a no brainer to add this to your arsenal of powerful self-care tools.
To get the most out of this investigation of gratitude practices, a look into what is going on in the brain is extremely enlightening. Essentially, the brain has two parallel circuits that operate opposite of each other. Between the two, the default circuit is the defensive/aversion circuit, which identifies threats and has us react to them. The parallel circuit encourages us to engage with the world and pull toward us sensations and experiences that elicit positive responses. This is the neural circuit that is active when we are experiencing gratitude. Now, the defensive/aversive circuit has been key to human kind’s survival as a species, so think of it as your brain's “resting-bad-ass face”, constantly ready to enact a physiological response to a perceived threat. Not to worry, though, there is a way out!
One of the major areas of the brain that is part of the circuit activated during experiences of gratitude is the prefrontal cortex. This area of the brain is responsible for setting the context for all your sensory perceptions and assigning meaning to them. There are two important implications of this role: first, that different contexts can change, at a neurochemical and physiological level, the way your body responds to identical situations. Second, this area of your brain has an extremely high level of neuroplasticity because it is constantly adapting to new information in order to best deliver appropriate contexts to the rest of your brain and body. This means that it forms new connections and pathways in the brain extremely quickly, which thereby means that you have a huge amount of influence over what context your prefrontal cortex is pumping out. A.K.A: you can turn that “resting bad-ass face” into a “resting calm-centered-peaceful face”, and it’s going to be easy!
Before we get into what constitutes an effective gratitude practice, let’s look at some of the potential health benefits:
- Heightened quality and quantity of sleep
- Increased likelihood to exercise regularly
- Fewer unpleasant physical symptoms
- More positive feelings about life in general
- Increased optimism about the week to come and the future
- Higher capacity to deal with stress, recover from illness, and cope with trauma
- Decrease in the presence of inflammatory cytokines in the body
- Improvements in social relationships across the board (those close to people who practice gratitude have reported them as being happier, more sociable, more motivated, etc.)
- Regular practice provides a reliable and repeatable method for enacting a physiological shift in your body (reducing heart rate, slowing breathing, reducing stress hormones)
So, how can you craft a gratitude practice that is both practical and as effective as possible? As mentioned earlier, some of the most popular forms of gratitude practices are lists and letters. However, current research is emerging that actually shows there is a more effective, more potent form to practice. Andrew Huberman (of the Huberman Lab podcast) is a neuroscientist at Stanford University. He recently distilled the most current and well researched scientific data and provided all the keys to creating gratitude practices of your own. These are the key elements that he highlights:
- The practice should be based on a story. Story is one of the major ways that the brain stores information, as well as one of the ways that we can easily hack our brain's circuitry.
- Find a story that you relate to and that is powerful for you. It must be something that resonates with you emotionally in order for it to work. Someone else’s story is wonderful, or you can recount a time where someone expressed genuine, heartfelt thanks to you for something you contributed.
- Write down some bullet points that capture the story.
- Include the context of the story, the act that invoked gratitude, your emotional reaction to it, any other details that help you sink into the story.
- Spend anywhere from 1-5 minutes submerging your mind in the narrative. Feel into it and sink into the space of gratitude.
- Do this about three times a week, at any time of day.
- The more you do it, the more easily and immediately the effect will take place in your mind and body.
- Emmons, R. A. (2013). Gratitude works!: A 21-Day program for creating emotional prosperity. Jossey-Bass.
- Emmons, R. A., & Stern, R. (2013). Gratitude as a Psychotherapeutic Intervention. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 69(8), 846–855. https://doi-org.libdatabase.newpaltz.edu/10.1002/jclp.22020
- Hazlett, L., & Et. all. (2021, July). Exploring neural mechanisms of the health benefits of gratitude in women: A randomized controlled trial. ScienceDirect.com. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S088915912100177X?via%3Dihub
- Hone, L. (2019, August). 3 secrets of resilient people [Video]. TED: Ideas Worth Spreading.https://www.ted.com/talks/lucy_hone_3_secrets_of_resilient_people#t-953844
- Huberman Lab. (2021, November 22). The Science of Gratitude & How to Build a Gratitude Practice. https://open.spotify.com/show/79CkJF3UJTHFV8Dse3Oy0P?si=d11750ac61234430