What are you thankful for?
No, really! Pause here and think about it. What are you grateful for right now? Think about it. It will help. Gratitude makes you feel better. Seriously!
Even when we can’t think of anything we are thankful for, when we stop and ask ourselves our brain chemistry changes. Let me say that again. Our brain changes when we ask ourselves what we’re grateful for even when we initially can’t think of anything to be thankful for. But if we think about it long enough, there’s always something to be thankful for: clean water to drink, a bed to sleep in, technology to keep in touch, a sunny day. There’s always something.
But why should I express gratitude today? It’s not a holiday or my birthday.
Gratitude is like a natural antidepressant no matter what day it is. When we ask ourselves what we’re thankful for, our brains increase their production of dopamine and serotonin and activate neural circuits like many antidepressants do. Taking time for gratitude and being thankful can naturally cause the same effects that some medications do and help build feelings of contentment.
The more often you practice gratitude and illuminate these pathways in the brain, the stronger and more automated they become. Neuroscience calls this Hebb’s Rule, which in layman’s terms is often referred to as, “neurons that fire together wire together.” The more you run a neural pathway in your brain, the stronger that pathway becomes.
For example, when we first learn how to do a sun salutation, we might need to consciously think about what comes after downward facing dog. The more often we practice them though, the less we have to think about which pose comes next, which gives us a chance to notice how it feels instead. The same happens with gratitude. The more often you take time for gratitude, the easier it becomes to look for things to be thankful for.
What we put our attention on grows.
If we always look for problems and focus on the negative, the neural pathways for negative thinking become stronger. Practicing gratitude, on the other hand, shifts our attention to look for the positive in our situations. And, the more often we practice gratitude the more automatic it becomes.
Gratitude changes you.
In a recent study, university students seeking mental health counseling were divided into three groups. Each group received counseling but one third were also asked to write gratitude letters, one third wrote about their deepest thoughts and negative experiences, and the final third did no additional writing. The people who wrote the gratitude letters reported significantly better mental health than either of the other groups.
They found that gratitude allows us to release toxic emotions and use fewer negative words. Thinking about what (and who) we are thankful for improves our mental health even if we don’t share it. (Fewer than a quarter of the participants actually shared their gratitude letters with anyone.)
Something to keep in mind is that the benefits of gratitude take time to manifest. The participants didn’t experience the benefits immediately but one month later, they reported better mental health than the other groups. After 12 weeks the students who wrote the gratitude letters had an even greater increase in mental health showing that gratitude has lasting effects on our brains.
Similarly, Harvard researcher Shawn Achor says, “Something as simple as writing down three things you’re grateful for every day for 21 days in a row significantly increases your level of optimism, and it holds for the next six months.”
That’s the kind of insurance I’m happy to invest my time and energy into. How about you?
Take a moment right now to think of three things that are going in your favor right now?
They don’t have to be huge or grandiose. Need some inspiration? Try “today I am thankful that I have healthy food to eat,” “right now I am grateful that I am safe,” or “today I am thankful that my body has brought me this far.”
Giving thanks every day helps us feel better because it increases the production of serotonin and dopamine and the effort pays off over time. Guess what else does? Yoga! And meditation! You’re in the right place for that. Fill out the form below to listen to my guided Gratitude Meditation.
I can’t do that gratitude meditation without feeling better afterward. It always makes me smile so please incorporate it into your life. Listen to it today. Do it again a couple of days from now. And listen again one week from today. Notice how it shifts your perspective and your mood.