Tag Archives: gratitude and neuroscience

How to feel grateful when you don’t

Photo: Cape May, with Sage and Asia

Got Gratitude?

Happy Thanksgiving.
Some days it’s tough to feel true gratitude, or hard to find anything to be grateful for at all. Some days you might wonder why you should feel grateful because nothing seems okay. Like life, gratitude practice is not an eternal upward slope. Anyone can feel challenged as struggles diminish our energy to appreciate.
It’s okay if you spend some days without feeling grateful. Attempting to force yourself to feel what you can’t truly isn’t going to improve your head space. Acceptance of our reality is the most crucial step towards healing from wounds. You don’t have to keep a gratitude journal. You already have one in your head.

1. Think small
When you’re at a loss of things to feel grateful for, think about what you actually do on a given day. For example, your strong hands help you interact with everything around you. You pat your dog or cat, scratch an itch, pour your coffee, swat away a mosquito. Without them, it would be quite a struggle. But, how many times a day do you appreciate how fundamental they are to your day-to-day life?
Similarly, things like clean water, healthy food, access to transportation, paved roads, music, the MCU, cool wind, flowers, technology, education, books, sleep, friendship, intimacy, warmth, light, are some of the things that we engage with regularly in one way or another but somehow forget to mention as enthusiastically as we do other great achievements. These are the small parts of our lives that have mostly been with us through thick and thin, like that friend who stays with you through successes and failures. See also Stones Across the River, Mindfulness Practice.

2. Reflect on negative experiences you have overcome
During the hard times, it’s hard to remember that you’ve already been through hard times. You survived. Every single thing that ever happened brought you to this space and time.

3. Start gratitude conversations
Ask people what they are thankful for. Better yet, ask, “Who are you grateful to?” Learning about others and their struggles, touchstones, goals, and experiences can be moving, inspiring, and downright connecting.  More at The Psychology of Nostalgia.

4. Practice mindful verbal expression
Say, “I appreciate you.”
Say, “I notice xyz. Thank you for doing that.”
Say, “You look absolutely amazing in that sari.”
Also see The Power of Words Through Text, The Power of Texting.

5. Be generous
Another way is to take the focus away from ourselves and express gratitude to all the people that care and have made our lives easier or more beautiful with their presence. Gifting is not fancy. It’s an acknowledgment through deed, word, action, or a significant object that someone matters to you.  See also The Mental Health Benefits of Random Acts of Kindness.

Gratitude has lasting effects on the brain: The neuropsychology of giving thanks

Recent evidence suggests that a promising approach is to complement psychological counseling and treatment with additional activities that are not too taxing for clients, but yield high results. Research has zeroed in on one such activity: the practice of gratitude. Indeed, many studies over the past decade have found that people who consciously count their blessings on a regular basis tend to be happier and less depressed. I often have my patients write a daily list of three things that they are grateful for. It increases mindfulness, and the emerging research indicates that it’s an adjunct treatment for depression.

A conundrum is that most research studies on gratitude have been conducted with well-functioning people, not those who have clinical levels of distress. A landmark study from the University of California at Berkeley studied individuals with a high degree of distress to see if active practice of gratitude would make a difference in their mental health. After three months of mental health treatment, during which patients wrote gratitude letters or journals, participants were compared with those who didn’t do any writing. The researchers wanted to know if grateful brains were processing information differently.

An MRI was used to measure brain activity people from each group. Those with a gratitude practice showed significantly elevated activity in the ‘pleasure centers’ of the brain, which are affected by the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine.

This is the summary of my research on gratitude:

Gratitude improves health
Gratitude impacts on mental and physical well-being. Positive psychology and mental health researchers in the past few decades have established a significant connection between gratitude and good health. Keeping a gratitude journal reduces stress, improves the quality of sleep, and builds emotional awareness (a great study to read on this is Seligman, Steen, Park and Peterson, 2005).

Gratitude builds professional commitment
Grateful workers are more efficient, more productive and more responsible. Expressing gratitude in the workplace is a proactive action toward building interpersonal bonds and trigger feelings of closeness and bonding (see Algoe, 2012). Gratitude is positively correlated to more vitality, energy, and enthusiasm to work harder.

Employees who practice expressing gratitude at work are more likely to volunteer for more tasks, willing to take an extra step to accomplish their tasks, and happily work as a part of the team. Also, managers and supervisors who feel grateful and remember to convey the same, have a stronger group cohesiveness and better productivity. They recognize good work, gives everyone their due importance in the group and actively communicates with the team members.

The Neuroscientific Research Into Gratitude
Gratitude was significant in ancient philosophies and cultures, for example, in ancient Roman writings, where Cicero mentioned gratitude as the ‘mother’ of all human feelings. As an area of neuropsychological research, however, it was a rare subject of concern until the last two decades.

Gratitude And The Brain
Neural mechanisms that are responsible for feelings of gratitude have grabbed attention. Studies have demonstrated that at the brain level, personal judgments involving feelings of gratefulness are evoked in the right anterior temporal cortex (see Zahn et al. 2008, 2014). In the same study, it was revealed that the reason why some of us are naturally more grateful than others, is the neurochemical differences at the Central Nervous System (CNS). In other words, there is an increase in availability of both dopamine and serotonin, which are pleasure neurotransmitters, when we experience gratitude. People who express and feel gratitude have also a higher volume of grey matter in the right inferior temporal gyrus. Gratitude makes us sharper, and possibly brighter.

While the research shows a clear benefit of gratitude, it also makes a clear distinction. Realizing that other people are worse off than you is NOT gratitude. Gratitude requires an appreciation of the positive aspects of your own situation. It is not a comparison. You actually have to show appreciation for what you have, for it to have an effect.

Gratitude improves mental health. That is a daily Thanksgiving.

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