Experiencing and expressing gratitude is often an over looked, but powerful tool in helping us feel a deeper connection to our essential, open-hearted selves, and developing an overall sense of happiness.
Scientists have described how our minds have a ‘negativity bias’, meaning we ‘ve been wired over time to be very quick to notice threats in the environment (which has kept us alive for millennia), while over looking things that bring us pleasure. As Rick Hanson PhD, describes in his book, Hardwiring Happiness, “Over hundreds of millions of years, it was a matter of life and death to pay attention to ‘sticks’, react to them instinctively, and over time become even more sensitive to them. Bad, (painful, upsetting experiences), routinely overpower and gain more attention than good (pleasurable, comforting) ones.” Over years of practice, this state of stress takes a toll on our health and wellbeing.
However, more recently in our evolution, humans have also searched for ways to have a stronger sense of wellbeing or ‘happiness’ as they live. Over the past 30 years scientists have coined the term ‘neuroplasticity’ to describe how the brain changes with experience and by paying attention to different things. Research has demonstrated that the more we practice positive thinking patterns, like gratitude, the more the brain learns to tune in to the positive things in the world.
Many patterns of thought, specifically persistent unhelpful ones, functioned at one time to help us deal with what we perceived to be either a minor or major threat, either to our sense of security or to our life itself. These patterns were usually formed in our early lives.
Psychotherapist and long time student of Tibetan Buddhism John Welwood says:
“Thought patterns have been deeply etched into our psyche through repetition. We learn and repeat the same unwholesome relational patterns [how we relate to ourselves and others] while growing up for fifteen to twenty years and they become established in the neural circuitry of the brain.”
As adults, some of these patterns that continue to have a negative impact on our feelings can come from judgments about ourselves, or about someone else. Often, we decide ahead of time how an event will negatively affect us (a learned anxiety or expectation that may or may not be met, for example). Sometimes we have an ongoing negative feeling (sadness, guilt, anger) about an event from the past, which we may not have explored deeply enough. When it is possible to explore these issues mindfully, we may be able to respond differently.
According to studies cited in The Upward Spiral – Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small change at a Time by Alex Korb PhD, when we take time to grow positive thinking, there is less ‘room’ for negative thinking.
Additionally, Korb notes that in the presence of gratitude, different parts of the brain are activated, including the ventral and dorsal medial pre-frontal cortex. This results in an increase in our capacity to have a feeling of reward (the reward when stress is removed), more positive social interactions, and an increased ability to empathize. Suddenly, we see the good in the world and in the people around us, increasing our feelings of security and connectedness. Generosity is rewarded through appreciation, and maintains the cycle of healthy social behaviour.
Gratitude can also increase important neurochemicals. When thinking shifts from negative to positive, there is a surging of ‘feel-good’ neurotransmitters such as dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin. These all contribute to the feelings of closeness, connection and happiness. It’s important to find many different things to be grateful for, as our brains also love novelty. Appreciating new aspects of our lives each day is another way of ensuring these feel good chemicals stay active over time. Gratitude has also been shown to benefit our immune systems, blood pressure, sleep, and depression.
It takes time and practice to begin to replace repetitive unhelpful thoughts and feelings, with positive ones, like gratefulness.
According to Buddhist practitioner, Darlene Cohen:
“There are the 300,000 times. The first 100,000 times is noticing the pattern or the arising of some discomfort: just before I felt angry or fearful, or felt like I needed to shut down, something happened; that takes 100,000 times of observing. The second 100,000 times is observing where this comes from in the body. What is it like when this feeling arises? The third 100,000 times is when one begins to have a choice. We begin to have a choice about whether we continue to repeat the pattern.”
We can choose to bring more gratitude into our lives when we notice our minds and bodies cluttered with negativity. Don’t let the large numbers above discourage you, according to Psychologist and best-selling ‘happiness’ researcher and author Shawn Achor, research has shown that we can rewire our brains to begin to make ourselves happier by practicing simple exercises every day for three weeks. For example:
♦ Gratitude Exercises.
A) Write down three things you’re grateful for that occurred over the last 24 hours. They don’t have to be profound. It could be a really good cup of coffee or the warmth of a sunny day.
B) Spend 20 minutes a week writing a letter to someone you’re thankful for. Whether or not you send it is a choice, the effect of this stays for months after the initial exercise. Researchers described the changes in the brain as ‘profound’ and ‘long-lasting’. One of the changes was a greater sensitivity to gratitude. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26746580)
♦ The Doubler.
Take one positive experience from the past 24 hours and spend two minutes writing down every detail about that experience. As you remember it, your brain labels it as meaningful and deepens the imprint.
Four more exercises to increase happiness according to Anchor:
- The Fun Fifteen. Do 15 minutes of a fun cardio activity, like gardening or walking the dog, every day. The effects of daily cardio can be as effective as taking an antidepressant.
- Meditation. Every day take two minutes to stop whatever you’re doing and concentrate on breathing. Even a short mindful break can result in a calmer, happier you.
- Conscious Act of Kindness. At the start of every day, send a short email or text praising someone you know. Our brains become addicted to feeling good by making others feel good.
- Deepen Social Connections. Spend time with family and friends. Our social connections are one of the best predictors for success and health, and even life expectancy.
References: (as cited in The Upward Spiral – Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small change at a Time; by Alex Korb, PhD)
1. Wood, A.M., Maltby, J.,et al. (2008). The role of gratitude in the development of social support, stress, and depression: Two longitudinal studies. Journal of Research in Personality, 42:854-871
2. Zahn, R., Moll,J., et al. (2009). The neural basis of human social values: Evidence from functional MRI. Cerebral Cortex, 19(2): 276-283.
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