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Strengthen Your Brain with Gratitude

by Brittney Schrick, Ph.D., CFLE - September 23, 2021

You have probably been told at some point in your life to “count your blessings.” That phrase is written on door mats, cross-stitched on samplers, sewn onto throw pillows, and sung in songs. It is easy to dismiss the idea as simplistic when it comes to brain health and mental well-being, but you may be surprised by the strength of counting your blessings and intentional gratitude practice.

What is gratitude?

The definition of gratitude is “the quality or state of being thankful; readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness.” Gratitude comes very easily to some people and is less obvious to others. Your personality may lend itself to constant displays or feelings of gratitude, or you may lean more toward finding the negatives or potential problems in a situation. As a group, we need both types of personalities. The positive folks help keep us moving along, looking only at the good things that could happen and finding the good even when things go wrong. The more pessimistic folks help us prepare for things that might go wrong and are often great protectors who we want around when there’s a crisis.

No matter which end of the spectrum you identify with more, everyone can benefit from regular, intentional gratitude practice.

Meaningful "Thank Yous"

It is very common to say thank you as a matter of habit rather than a true feeling of gratitude. One way to begin intentional gratitude practice is to start paying closer attention to those times we say “thank you.”

  1. Start by noticing your ‘thank yous.” When you say “thank you,” do you really mean it, or is it just a habit? How do you feel when you show or express your thanks to someone in an everyday interaction? Are you already physically moving on to the next thing, or do you make eye contact? Do a quick body scan. Pay attention to what is going on.
  2. When you notice the desire to say “thank you,” pause and think about what you are actually thankful FOR. Make a mental note or even express the specific thanks to the person.

This type of process can help us achieve the two key components of practicing gratitude:

  1. We affirm the good things we’ve received.
  2. We acknowledge the role other people play in providing our lives with goodness.

Paying attention to why and to whom we’re saying “thank you” can offer great insight into those blessings we’re told to count.

How can I practice gratitude?

There are lots of ways we can practice gratitude daily.

  1. Keep a gratitude journal. Establish a daily practice of noticing and reminding yourself of gifts, graces, and benefits you experienced that day. These can be related to and interaction with someone else, something you enjoyed alone, or something you appreciate about yourself. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself to make the gratitude too grand. It could be something as simple as seeing a shooting star or waking up with a lot of energy or as extraordinary as welcoming a new grandchild or making a new friend. Write these down, keep a note in your phone, or think of another creative way to keep a running list of joy. Below, you will find a printable PDF with a long list of gratitude journal prompts to get you started!
  2. Share your gratitude with others. Researchers at Florida State University found that mismatched levels of gratitude within relationships can contribute to unhappiness. If you appreciate something someone does for you, tell them! They may even start paying more attention to their own blessings too.
  3. Come to your senses. One of the best ways to savor the moment and focus on the present is to focus on what sensory information your body is taking in. Take a deep breath and focus on what you can see, hear, taste, smell, feel, etc. Even if you have deficits or disabilities in one area, a focus on those senses that bring you joy and information can remind you of the miracle the human body is.
  4. Watch your language. Paying attention to the words you use and the tone you express those words in can help you practice gratitude. Especially if you tend toward negative talk, reminding yourself to use positive words and focus on what you are grateful for in a situation can lessen anxiety and stress.
  5. If you don’t feel it, fake it. Going through the motions of gratitude can sometimes trigger the real feeling. Smiling, writing a thank you note, or telling someone you appreciate what they did can sometimes make you feel more grateful than you did before and help you focus on the kindness.

What's in it for me? 

We have our plans for intentional gratitude practice, but what is the point? What will we gain by showing gratitude on purpose every day?

  1. Frequent, intentional gratitude practice helps to train your brain to focus on positives and notice those things that bring you joy rather than all the annoying little things of daily life. Even when something is annoying or troubling, someone who practices gratitude can quickly interrupt the negative thoughts and redirect to something more positive. This helps reduce stress and relieve pain. The parts of the brain associated with gratitude are in the areas where we experience pleasure. They’re connected to the parts of the brain that regulate our emotions as well as heart rate and arousal levels. Activating the pleasure centers of your brain reduces stress, and a body that is less stressed tends to be in less pain.
  2. Over time, we can even improve health by using the natural brain chemicals released when we socialize or even think about interacting with others positively. It is assumed that the health benefits of gratitude practice come from the way the brain network associated with social bonding and stress relief comes into play when we show gratitude.
  3. Researchers at Indiana University found that gratitude practice can help individuals with depression. Consistent gratitude can actually change brain structures and pathways leading to improved mood.

Note: Gratitude practice should not be a substitute for medical treatments for depression or pain management. This practice may, however, be useful in addition to other treatments.

Over time, people who practice gratitude report fewer physical symptoms of illness, more optimism, greater goal attainment, decreased anxiety and depression, and other health benefits. Remember the word "practice." Practice is not perfection. Give yourself grace to learn over time, to take breaks, and to stop and start again. This practice is for your benefit, not to prove anything to anyone else. 


References & Additional Resources

Gratitude Journal Prompts

Emmons, R. (2010). “Why is gratitude good? Greater Good Magazine

Henning, M., Fox, G. R., Kaplan, J., Damasio, H., & Damasio, A. (2017). A potential role for mu-Opioids in mediating the positive effects of gratitude. Frontiers in Psychology, 21.

“How to practice gratitude.”