Gratitude improves your health and well-being in so many ways. There are decades of research showing a high correlation between the neuroscience of gratitude and our health. Gratitude helps us in our day-to-day lives, our relationships, our careers, it allows us to be present and fully enjoy and appreciate our lives.
In neuroscience, Hebb’s law says “Neurons that fire together, wire together”. This means the more you practice gratitude, the more you strengthen the brain’s neural circuitry by building new neural pathways for gratitude which makes it easier to focus on the feelings gratitude provides such as joy, fulfillment, and happiness. This is neuroplasticity- the process of changing and evolving our brains. This means when you focus on things you already have in your life you train your brain to become better at noticing these things on a day-to-day basis. You reshaped your thoughts and created new patterns through intention and repetition.
For example, let’s say you consciously notice you are grateful for a safe place to sleep every night. And you begin to consciously think about this every night for a week. On days you do not think about it, the gratitude neural pathways will signal to your brain to notice the safe place you have to sleep and feel gratitude again.
When we focus on what we have and what we can appreciate in our lives this serves as a natural antidepressant. This focus forces a shift to the positive which stimulates neurotransmitters in our brains, specifically dopamine and serotonin. And when this happens it literally shapes how we view the world in a more positive light which changes our behaviors and thoughts.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that gives us a natural high and creates good feelings that motivate us to repeat certain behaviors. It fosters optimism, triggers positive emotions, and is correlated with goal-seeking behaviors. When we express gratitude, our brain releases a surge of dopamine which then helps us to feel good.
Serotonin is another neurotransmitter that enhances our moods, our motivation, and our willpower. It’s called the “happiness” chemical as it makes us feel better and it is an antidepressant that helps us to feel more relaxed. When we express gratitude, the anterior cingulate cortex in our brain releases serotonin.
Gratitude practice helps our brain to release these chemicals to lower our stress and condition our brains to become more thankful and appreciative. Practicing gratitude changes our brain in a healthy way. The more we practice gratitude, the stronger the neural pathway and circuits grow in our brain. The stronger the gratitude “muscle” strengthens, gratitude becomes a natural part of our daily lives. Feeling better and grateful comes to you effortlessly and our minds are less inclined to dwell on the negatives. Gratitude practice helps our minds to focus on the present moment, not hyper-focusing on problems.
There is more research showing that gratitude activates other parts of our brains such as the medial prefrontal cortex which is linked to learning and making decisions and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex which is associated with altruism. So by giving more, you feel grateful and want to connect more by giving more in the future.
So how can we practice gratitude and make this a daily habit so we can feel better? Here are some easy, practical suggestions…
1) Say “thank you” more often. We all desired to be valued and appreciated. When we show this to others by saying “thank you” we project an attitude of gratitude. And this practice will circle back to you as you will be thanked and appreciated.
Our brains are wired to scan for the negative. Those neural pathways are deep as they are practiced often. But the emotional outcome is stress, anger, frustration, sadness, etc. So to make the conscious choice to shift our brain’s focus for gratitude and recognition will build new neural pathways, which provides better feeling emotions.
2) The next time something stressful is happening in your life, change the question you ask yourself from “Why is this happening to me?” to “What can I learn from this?”. When you do this, you redirect the negative thought into optimism by looking for areas of growth. And you are creating new neural circuitry for gratitude. Training your brain to look for these learning experiences instead of focusing on the stress or negativity of the situation helps us to express gratitude for the lesson and the opportunity. This puts us in a better mood and makes us more productive.
3) Writing down or saying what we are thankful for puts what we are grateful for into a conscious act. Spending a few minutes each day to focus on 2 or 3 things you are grateful for will create new patterns in your brain to notice positives over negatives.
Keeping a gratitude journal or making mental notes (speaking internally to ourselves) of what we appreciate promotes mindfulness. Mindfulness helps us to focus on the present moment. It shifts our attention to what is happening now, not in the past or concerned about the future.
Devoting a few moments each day to notice what you are grateful for also begins the neuroplasticity process in rewiring your brain to condition itself (building the gratitude muscle as mentioned above) to naturally become grateful which helps you to feel better.
Hopefully, this encourages you to begin a gratitude practice. It truly has an amazing effect on our brains, our moods, emotions, and our lives.