Gratitude is sometimes considered synonymous with being thankful. Whilst this is true to some extent, true gratitude is much more than just thankfulness.
Gratitude can have a significant effect on the brain, with researchers confirming that it can lead to substantial neurological benefits for those who practice it.
Here we will look at what gratitude is, how to practice it, and how it could benefit your mental health.
What is Gratitude?
Many researchers, psychologists, and sociologists have tried to pin down exactly what gratitude is. In its simplest form, it is the thankfulness or appreciation a person feels when something positive occurs.
This positive action or event might be:
- Natural or lucky occurrences
This could include the weather being unseasonably warm when you were expecting thunderstorms. You may experience gratitude in being able to enjoy an unexpectedly beautiful day.
- A conscious act
Intentional actions that may lead to feelings of gratitude could include receiving a gift from a friend out of the blue, or your partner completing all of the vacuuming before you return home from work.
Both natural and intentional occurrences can make us feel thankful for the people we have in our lives or the luck we experience.
Psychologists have concluded that “gratitude is the appreciation of what is valuable and meaningful to oneself.” It can also be seen as a “social emotion signaling recognition of the things others have done for us”.
So, although gratitude has some similarities with being thankful, it has much deeper roots in how we see our lives and what we appreciate.
Why is Gratitude Important?
Psychologists have linked practicing gratitude with overall greater happiness. It fosters positive emotions such as love, excitement, interest or pride. It can also help people to see the best in every experience by propagating an optimistic attitude, as well as improving physical and mental health. People who feel gratitude may find it easier to build strong relationships.
Practicing gratitude requires a certain amount of reflection. Taking time to reflect on all that is good in your life can help to draw out positivity or thankfulness, even if these are things you have struggled to identify before.
For this reason, it can be particularly beneficial to practice gratitude if you are experiencing depression or a difficult period in your life. It can improve relationships, boost well-being and help you to nurture your own mental health.
What Does Gratitude Do to Brain?
Learning to practice gratitude is not just a psychological positivity tool. Gratitude has a biological effect on the brain, its neurotransmitters, and the hormones that affect stress.
Gratitude changes the pathways within the brain. Over time, experiencing gratitude occurs spontaneously as the brain creates new neural connections for emotional experiences.
As the connections strengthen, the pathways created within the brain become permanent. This means that a positive, grateful nature is cultivated. Your overall mindset may shift from feeling anxious to feeling thankful, inspired and grateful.
Neurotransmitters and Hormones
As well as strengthening neural pathways, the brain becomes more capable of releasing the so-called “happy hormones” dopamine and serotonin. With strengthened neural connections, the brain releases these neurotransmitters more readily, leading to more frequent and sustained periods of happiness.
Cortisol is a stress hormone responsible for negative feelings and emotional disturbances. Gratitude slows cortisol production, which may significantly benefit your mental health.
All of these changes in the brain can lead to some alleviation of the symptoms of anxiety and depression, as well as giving your self-esteem a real boost.
How to Practice Gratitude
If you are feeling stressed or anxious, starting to practice gratitude can take some getting used to. Before you begin, it is important to recognize the stages to feeling gratitude.
There are two stages to practicing gratitude that help us to see what we have in our lives that we can be thankful for. These stages are:
- Acknowledging that there are good things in your life that make you feel happy or fulfilled.
- Recognition that the good things are external to our being. In this stage, we begin to feel gratitude to other people or the universe itself for providing good things in our lives.
By going through these two stages, you can begin to not only recognize the goodness in your life, but also appreciate that someone, or something, else has given the goodness to you as a gift.
If the thought of practicing gratitude is overwhelming at first, there are two simple ideas you can try as you begin your journey.
- Notice saying thank you
Most of us say thank you as a reflex, but pick one day to pay attention to when you say it. Do you mean it when you say it, and if so, what is it that you are thankful for? This is one of the first steps in recognizing the gratitude within your life.
Pay close attention to one “thank you” you say each day. If you say it whilst distracted, try to bring your focus back to the present and truly be thankful to the cashier, waiter, or whomever you have interacted with. This will be one of the first steps in the formation of your new neural pathways of gratitude.
How to Practice Gratitude Every Day
Gratitude is something that takes time to develop. At first, it can be helpful to write a gratitude journal in which you document the people or things in your life that you appreciate. Each day, dedicate ten minutes to writing a short list to get your positive neurotransmitters firing.
Mindfulness is another great way to focus on all that you appreciate. Dedicate a few quiet minutes free from distractions to think about all that is good in your life, and who or what you are thankful to.
It can seem more challenging to work out how to practice gratitude during COVID-19. However, it is a personal process and so even in quarantine it is possible to practice it.
If COVID-19 has had a negative physical or emotional effect on you, at first you may find it difficult to identify the things you appreciate in life. In this case, you’ll need to go back to basics. Start with feeling gratitude that the simplest of your needs are still being met despite the pandemic. This might include having somewhere to call home, eating well, or being able to video call friends.
If you can’t see your friends or family, send them a thank you note to tell them that you appreciate them. If nature makes you feel thankful, get outside each day for a walk. Take note of the bad days of the pandemic that you have overcome, and remember just how much progress you have made. With the biological brain changes associated with gratitude, these steps may mean that you are able to experience the pandemic period more positively.
Gratitude is a tool you can use to re-shape your brain for improved well-being and self-esteem. If you are struggling with anxiety or depression, it can be helpful to talk to an experienced therapist to support you in developing gratitude. Simple acts including keeping a gratitude journal or practicing mindfulness can help you recognize the good in your life to support your new, positive outlook.
Hannah England is a freelance copywriter with a medical degree. After working as a doctor for several years, she now writes medical and well-being articles. Hannah endeavors to empower people by providing informative content that allows them to make healthy choices for improved physical and mental health. Hannah is part of the LGBT+ community and an inclusion expert, allowing her to write copy that is relevant to everyone, regardless of sexual orientation, gender, or identity. Hannah lives in a village in the South West of England.Read more