The Neuroscience of Gratitude

From Emily Fletcher, The Huffington Post

The Neuroscience of Gratitude

What are you most grateful for in this moment? Right here, right now. Seriously, stop and ask yourself. If you’re having a tough day and aren’t able to come up with anything off the top of your head, that’s all the more reason to ask the question. The New York Times recently referenced a scientific study that found that even if you aren’t able to think of anything to be grateful for, simply asking the question is powerful enough to change your brain chemistry. But the reality is there is ALWAYS something to be grateful for.

So take a moment right now, and think of five things that you have going for you. It doesn’t have to be huge; try “I have clean air to breathe,” “I have legs to walk on,” “I have people who love me,” or “I have a place to sleep tonight.”

Reasons to Give Thanks

Wondering why this exercise is important? Take it from Oprah, who says that starting a gratitude journal and writing down five things a day for which she’s grateful has been the single most powerful decision she’s ever made. If you’re not an Oprah fan, here is a bit more science to get you on the gratitude train.

Gratitude can be a natural antidepressant. When we take the time to ask what we are grateful for, certain neural circuits are activated. Production of dopamine and serotonin increases, and these neurotransmitters then travel neural pathways to the “bliss” center of the brain — similar to the mechanisms of many antidepressants. Practicing gratitude, therefore, can be a way to naturally create the same effects of medications and create feelings of contentment.

Neurons That Fire Together Wire Together

It gets better: The more you stimulate these neural pathways through practicing gratitude, the stronger and more automatic they become. On a scientific level, this is an example of Hebb’s Law, which states “neurons that fire together wire together.” But it’s also something you can see plainly in everyday life: If you’re forging a new path through the woods, the first trip is the most challenging and you have to be deliberate. But the more times the path is traveled, the more defined it becomes and the easier it is to follow it. Your brain works the same way: The more times a certain neural pathway is activated (neurons firing together), the less effort it takes to stimulate the pathway the next time (neurons wiring together).

Because of this, what we put our attention on grows. If we’re constantly looking at the negative and searching for problems, the neural pathways for negative thinking become stronger. But practicing gratitude can shift our attention to look for what is going right instead of looking for problems to solve. Over time, this encourages our brains to more consistently search for the constructive themes in our life instead of the destructive ones, helping us water the flowers instead of watering the weeds.

If deliberately practicing gratitude isn’t familiar to you, here’s how to start:

1. Write it down
Start with the simple exercise from the beginning of the post: Write down the top 5 things you are most grateful for. Really think about it, making a conscious effort to find the things that bring you joy (or even just peace of mind). Notice that there is ALWAYS something to be grateful for in any given situation.

2. Get into a routine
Challenge yourself to commit to this practice every day for the next 10 days. There are lots of ways you can do this. You can keep a journal by your bed and each night take a minute to scan your day for everything that brought a smile to your face. Or you can keep a list on your phone to write the things down as they happen. This can be a nice pick-me-up to read when you’re feeling blue. Another option is to get an accountability partner and do a five-minute check-in each week and read your lists to each other.

3. Meditate
I know I’m biased being a meditation teacher, but there is a reason why meditators are stereotyped as bliss bunnies. Meditation is a tool to help us “take out the mental trash.” When we meditate, we make room in our headspace by getting rid of old stress. This makes it that much easier to feel gratitude in our everyday lives — and to rewire our brains so that finding the bliss becomes more instinctual. If you already have a meditation practice, you can use the few minutes after your practice as a time for gratitude.

4. Repeat
Gratitude is like going to the mental gym; strength training for your neural pathways, if you will. The more you practice feeling grateful, the stronger that muscle gets. And over time, the workouts that at first seemed so challenging become easier and easier to do. You just have to keep showing up.

If this all feels like too much, try easing into a gratitude practice with this daily exercise: Every time your feet hit the ground when you get out of bed, simply say “thank you.” Nature likes to be paid attention to as much as the rest of us, and it helps our lives bloom in response to the way we acknowledge it. As the saying goes, “Your mind is a garden, your thoughts are the seeds. You can grow flowers, or you can grow weeds.”

So, what types of seeds are you planting? Try incorporating gratitude into your life and see how it unfolds.