Little did I know that when I started my gratitude experiment last January, that it is the thing that would save me this year.
I started a daily gratitude practice to lift my spirits after my mother passed. I had dabbled with gratitude practice before, but this time I wanted to be consistent and see if it would make a difference in my energy and my enjoyment of life.
Every morning I wrote down three things I was grateful for. This took about 5 minutes. After a few weeks of practice, I found myself eager to get up and write in my gratitude log. My entries evolved from just a few words to longer descriptive sentences of why that entry was so meaningful.
Then in March, the world started to fall apart with the Covd-19 pandemic, catastrophic fires and hurricanes, the murder of George Floyd, protests for social justice and policing equity, the vitriolic election. All the happy events I—and everyone else—had planned for 2020 were cancelled. The gratitude journal became my lifeline to hope amid a steady stream of anger, sadness, and despair.
Turns out there are some hard science-backed reasons why gratitude changes us.
- Gratitude mitigates our inherent negativity bias. Our body and brain are designed to keep us safe, always on the lookout for those things that could be perceived as a threat, physical or imagined. That’s a lot of anticipatory stress to hold, given the news of this year. There’s been quite a bit of research to show that gratitude can change our brain and steer it away from toxic negativity. Gratitude focuses us on the things we do have, not the things we can’t control and worry about.
- Gratitude generates “feel good” neurotransmitters, Dopamine and Serotonin. Dopamine activates the reward center of our brain, helping us feel good about ourselves and Serotonin acts to sooth our system.
- Gratitude supports resilience, the ability to bounce back after a setback. In continuation of her ground-breaking work on Positivity, Barbara Fredrickson, PhD, studies how positive thoughts (such as gratitude) stimulates a positive mindset that has been shown to broaden a person’s view so they can take in new perspectives and options, important to re-gaining momentum after a setback.
- Gratitude primes our brain to notice even more things to be grateful for. You are what you think about. Once you put the intention in your mind, you start noticing so many things that you can be grateful for. It’s like a snowball rolling downhill collecting more and more snowflakes long the way without much effort on your part.
- Gratitude can rewire our brain through the process of neuroplasticity. The more we are primed to see and practice gratitude, the more the neurons responding to those positive thoughts fire together, making a stronger connection to the parts of our brain that can modulate negative thinking. Over time, the firing of the neurons in reaction to that stimulus reshapes our brain, so that positivity is something we find more naturally.
Yes, this year was overloaded with its share of challenges, both personally and for our nation and the world. My gratitude journal saved my sanity and my health…and reshaped my brain in the process. The negative news doesn’t bring me down as much and I regain positive momentum more quickly. A pretty good Return-on-Investment for 5 minutes in the morning.
If you’d like a jump start on finding gratitude in your own life, you can get inspiration from The Community Book Project: 365 Days of Gratitude, a different essay of gratitude for each day of the year. I’m a contributing author; available on Amazon.