How a Gratitude Practice Can Re-Train Your Brain and Improve Your Well-Being
Sometimes life can feel like Groundhogs Day, which can cause some people to go into auto-pilot. When one is in auto-pilot, it can cause some of the good things in life to go unnoticed or under-appreciated. When we aren’t actively, intentionally, practicing gratitude, our thought processes can be tainted with negativity.
There is a science behind gratitude. Our brain is like Yelp in a way. Similarly, to Yelp, our brain is reviewing its experiences and it can have a tendency to highlight negative reviews. Why is this? Our brain is designed this way. We evolutionarily notice negative things because they could be dangerous to us according to the part of our primitive brain. Negatives can be easier to recognize or identify, as you can see how people are less likely to leave positive reviews but are more inclined to leave a negative review, which can cause the negatives to appear to outweigh the positives. However, the positives still exist, even if your brain doesn’t recognize them as naturally. When we have a negative mindset, it can create a neural pathway that gets strengthened to continue in the cycle of a negative mindset. If someone practices gratitude regularly, it can re-train the brain to notice good things more easily and without as much intention, therefore, improving overall well-being. (Pratt, 2022)
I have heard from many of my clients that they have a difficult time coming up with the things they are grateful for. Some can feel that gratitude has to be toward something grand or important. Try taking the pressure off of what you’re grateful for. Gratitude can be practiced by simply noticing small things that create meaning in your day-to-day life or little things you enjoy. One time, a client of mine was asked what they are grateful for and they responded that they are grateful for the ability to see, as it allowed them to indulge in their favorite hobby of watching horror movies. For others, it might be the great tasting coffee you had that morning, the comforting hug you get from your loved one, or the feeling of the sun as it hits your skin.
When you are present and recognize this moment of gratitude unfolding in front of you, it can be helpful to pause and take in that moment fully. For example, when I see a beautiful sunset, I acknowledge it’s beauty, stop, take a deep breath, recognize the feelings I have, and express thankfulness for the work of art the sky creates that I get to enjoy.
Think about if you have a bad day. Sometimes a bad day can also consist of smaller, less significant good things but the negatives are what stood out. If one is present, they can identify their bad day also consisted of a lot of good, which can overtime increase mood and change the overall perspective. Alison Ledgerwood states in her TEDTalk titled “Getting Stuck in the Negatives (And how to Get Unstuck) that, if you find yourself venting after a long day about all the bad things that happened, try also asking yourself what happened that was good.
A gratitude journal can be a great way to start practicing gratitude. Some families incorporate it into their routines to foster connectedness and improve each member’s mood. Others who like more structured practice might gravitate towards apps designed to help practicing gratitude. Some people like to make a gratitude photo album where they can look back and appreciate the things that they have been grateful for.
Practicing gratitude is simple and effective. Its’ something that doesn’t take a lot of time or effort. It can increase resiliency and overall well-being. Sometimes even the things we don’t think we’re grateful for can be some of the things that we miss most when they’re gone. That is why its’ important to not worry about when something is going to end to how it will turn out. When we do that, we aren’t present to enjoy the moments in front of us.
Just try to remember to follow rule #32 of Zombieland; enjoy the little things.
Blog post written by Alex Ziemann, LPC of Green Door Therapy.
An Experiment In Gratitude: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oHv6vTKD6lg
Getting Stuck in the Negatives (And How to get Unstuck): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7XFLTDQ4JMk&t=398s
Pratt, M. (2022). The Science of Gratitude. Mindful.
Allen, S. (2018). The Science of Gratitude. UC Berkeley: John Templeton Foundation https://ggsc.berkeley.edu/images/uploads/GGSC-JTF_White_Paper-Gratitude-FINAL.pdf