We hear so much about the importance of gratitude that it can feel like a clichè. But it you’re tempted to skip over yet another article recommending a gratitude practice, let me say that, despite the ubiquity of the idea, it is just not weak-sauce! Scientific research tells us that the neurochemical and anti-inflammatory changes we receive are a par with pharmacology and exercise. Gratitude, it turn out, is a potent way indeed to improve mental and physical health.
Research indicates that a regular gratitude practice can provide resilience to trauma by helping to re-frame past traumatic events and inoculate us against future traumatic experiences. Gratitude changes our brains and bodies; it reduces anxiety, increases motivation, reduces inflammation, increases feelings of wellbeing, increases serotonin, and it benefits neuroplasticity.
Human brains contain two distinct sets of neural pathways: pro-social and defensive. These are parallel pathways in the brain that set us up for feeling good about things or bad about things. When we experience the pro-social neural pathway, we tap into an increased sense of wellbeing and we demonstrate behavior and thinking that allow us to be more effective in interactions with other people and ourselves. When we experience the defensive neural pathways, we find ourselves thinking and acting in ways that make us feel disconnected from others and ourselves. Science tells us that because defensive circuits are designed to keep us safe, they may be more robust. For most of us, our experience bears this out; it doesn’t take any effort to fall into habits of judging, distrusting and criticizing others and ourselves. Most of us need practices to engage the pro-social circuits of our brains and to turn-off the defensive patterns. The more we engage the pro-social circuits, the stronger they become. It’s like working out our muscles.
And gratitude engages the pro-social circuit. It has been proven across the board to benefit interpersonal relationships. Not just the ones in which we express gratitude, but all relationships in our lives including the one with ourselves.
Still, what neuroscience tells us about how to get the most out of gratitude practices may surprise you. The traditional ways of practicing gratitude - e.g.; listing things that we’re grateful for on paper, in our minds or out-loud - has some effect. Yet we can do even better. We enhance the impact of gratitude when we experience a shift in autonomic arousal (or alertness) in connection with these practices. In other words, gratitude as an embodied practice. We might consider making the above-mentioned list immediately after we’ve worked out, taken a brisk walk, practiced a breath technique that increases the inhale and shortens the exhale or, my personal favorite, danced. Making a list of five to ten things that you’re grateful for and then dancing your gratitude for just one song, can have a tremendous impact.
Science also indicates that receiving gratitude is by far the most transformative possible experience of gratitude. The times in our lives when we are present to receiving genuine gratitude from others have a tremendous impact on our mental and physical health. Hence, when we express our genuine gratitude for others, we are engaging a very effective method of shifting someone else’s neurochemistry. And there are ways we can build beneficial practices around receiving gratitude ourselves. We can make habits of doing kind things for others and preparing ourselves to be present to our experiences should they offer the opportunity of receiving that appreciation. We must, however, be careful here not to expect appreciation as that can lead us into the defensive network. We can also use past experiences of receiving someone’s gratitude for our own benefit. Try this: Find a quiet, restful place. Bring to mind the experience of someone expressing genuine gratitude to you. Allow yourself to get a snap shot of that moment, freeze-frame the image. Look at the image and track the feelings that come up. If you find sensations or emotions that feel expansive, joyful, easeful or anything else that is pleasant, hang out with the feeling for at least three breaths. Investigate the feeling, notice where it is in your body and how it feels: Does it move? What color would it be if it had color? What would it say to you if it had a voice? Finally, ask yourself: what does it mean to your life to have a moment like this? And let your mind answer. There is no wrong answer. If you engage in this practice and find that you can get to the image but the feelings are a difficult to locate, just stay with the image. We all operate differently at different times, and you’ll get just as much benefit from hanging with the image for three breaths.
Though it is important to acknowledge that it can be difficult to establish a practice of any kind, here’s some more good news about practicing gratitude: You don’t need much, five minutes three times per week will do the trick. If you’d like to build any practice into your life, it’s helpful to link it to a behavior you already do - e.g.; a gratitude practice before you eat a meal, take a shower or after you exercise. Also, it’s important that we practice in a way that feels good to us. Make any of these practices your own, edit them in ways that make them compelling to you. Finally, it’s helpful to remember that a definition of a practice is something to return to over and over again. It may feel extraordinary sometimes and mundane at others. That’s perfectly okay. The benefits of any practice come in returning to it again and again. It helps us set our intentions toward being a grateful person and gives us a through line in our lives that matches our values and desires.
Finally, I’d like to make a note about privilege and its connections to gratitude. Many of us are painfully aware of the disparities and injustices in the world. When we go to practice gratitude, these may come to our attention. How can I be grateful for a meal when others can’t eat? How can I feel good about offering a ride to one person when they don’t have a car? It can be helpful to think of gratitude as a recognition of the source from which the goodness came. We are thanking the land, the farmers, the sunshine and the water for what they have provided me in this meal. In being present to reciting another’s gratitude, we honor and respect them as the source of this appreciation. We all need to be recognized and appreciated; even the fields and the plants and the animals that end up on our plates. We honor them by recognizing their gifts. It’s not that it came to us instead of another, rather, -it’s that it was generated in this world and we take the time to feel and appreciate that.