November is all about Gratitude.
This week, learn how practicing gratitude can rewire the brain.
As we head into the month of November, our days are getting shorter and colder; we usher in the changing of clocks and the welcoming of longer periods of darkness.
In the US, November also hosts one of the most celebrated holidays of the year: Thanksgiving.
Given this social tendency towards thanks along with natural changing of the seasons, we’re focusing this month on the concept of gratitude. Gratitude is nothing new—its inception is as old as the human species, possibly older.
While the concept of a gratitude practice may seem far-reaching, yippie, or even trite, practicing gratitude is vital to wellbeing.
Your Brain on Gratitude
Gratitude increases happiness, reduces depression, and strengthens resilience, among a host of other positive side effects. Grateful people experience reduced blood pressure, less chronic pain, more energy, better sleep, and longer lives.
Those who frequently practice gratitude are more likely to help others which, in turn, creates its own prosocial behavior, which is linked to exponentially greater happiness.
How is it that something that is free to all and rather simple to put into practice can create such a full spectrum of benefits?
While we are in the midst of practicing gratitude, we rewire our brain. We kickstart the dopamine- and serotonin-production process, the two natural and crucial feel-good neurotransmitters that activate the bliss-center of the brain. In other words, there is a scientific process of bliss-creation that occurs when we are grateful.
When we consciously practice gratitude, we help strengthen these neural pathways in a similar way we strengthen our muscles. Likewise, this strengthening practice can help to create a more lasting sense of sincere gratitude from within.
But it doesn’t end with an increase of sunshine and rainbows. A study from 2004 showed that research participants who experienced gratitude showed a much lower level of the stress hormone, cortisol; they were more resilient than their peers to emotional stress and negative setbacks. Further studies have shown that simply observing those things that we perceive as beneficial in life, however small they may be, can help us deal with a negative situation with broader perception, understanding, and acceptance.
Gratitude: A Trick of the Mind
Keeping on track with this more objective, scientific look at gratitude, it’s important to understand what can happen in your own practice.
Gratitude, very simply put, is a trick of perception. You tricking your own mind and sense of self into seeing things the way you want them to be. Rather than focusing on the one, very real negative that you’re unable to attain in that moment, you flip your own narrative.
Instead, you focus on the immediate things you do have: your working legs, a beautiful life partner, knowing that you have food for your next meal, your ten highly useful and capable fingers.
This mind trick helps us to control our own consciousness through attention and intention. If we attend to the things we are grateful for, even—and particularly—when things aren’t going our way, we create our own perception of goodness, even in the midst of trouble.
In choosing gratitude, we choose a reframing of our world so that we have the power to see things as they are. In turn, this perspective shift allows us to respond to our experiences more deliberately, thoughtfully, and effectively.