Thanksgiving Day. A day where, around the globe we collectively pause to reflect, to acknowledge, to celebrate, to practice gratitude. As your day winds down you may wonder, is it the tryptophan in the turkey that is causing me to feel calmer and more at peace? Maybe. But what if it’s something more? What if that sense of contentment you experience post-Thanksgiving meal could be achieved every day, not just on National Turkey Day?
If you knew that you could strengthen the part of your brain that is involved in decision making and emotional regulation as well the regulation of physiological processes, such as blood pressure and heart rate, wouldn’t you want to know how? I do! And I was surprised to discover, it’s actually very simple: you improve brain strength by exercising your gratitude muscle.
You may have read some of the studies on the science of gratitude; there are plenty of them out there. The outcomes report good news for those who want to positively influence their physical, mental, and emotional health, since findings continue to point to all of these benefits. One recent study published in the Journal of Psychotherapy Research, followed a group of people who wrote gratitude letters regularly for three months, as compared with a group who did not write letters or do anything to practice gratitude, and then conducted MRI’s on both groups. (An MRI measures brain activity.) The MRI’s of those who wrote the gratitude letters showed greater activation in the medial prefrontal cortex, as compared to those who didn’t do the letter writing exercise.
There are hundreds more studies like this, and some suggest that developing a habit of practicing gratitude reshapes the brains neural pathways. Some studies aren’t conclusive but the study of gratitude on brain health is fairly new. I believe time will do nothing but prove the brain benefits of gratitude. It doesn’t take a scientist though to figure out that there is an undeniable positive impact on both the giver and the receiver when gratitude is exercised. Think of someone you know who demonstrates a lifestyle of practicing gratitude – what is their mood generally like, even on days when things don’t go their way? And how does their attitude of gratitude impact you and your mood? I love being around grateful people; gratitude is infectious.
My mother is going to be 80 years old next month, and about 18 months ago, she was diagnosed with a rare progressive neurodegenerative, and incurable condition that affects the brain. A year ago, my husband and I moved to Southern California to be near my parents and offer support in the wake of this devastating diagnosis. Every day for the past year, my mother has told me how grateful she is that we moved, and how happy she is to have my husband and I nearby. Every single day. And despite the havoc that this disease is wreaking on my mom’s brainstem, her prefrontal cortex is fully functional. Her decision making has not been compromised, her blood pressure and heart rate are near perfect, and she is one of the most emotionally regulated people I know. Why? I submit to you – gratitude. Come to think of it, for as long as I can remember, my mom has always practiced gratitude. Forever smiling at strangers, telling people thank you for every little thing, and constantly counting her blessings. It has been her lifelong habit. She inspires me to practice gratitude more.
Hope whispers, what are you grateful for?
So how do you cultivate a practice of gratitude? One day at a time. Many people recommend starting a gratitude journal and writing down at least one thing you are grateful for every day. I like this idea, but I travel quite a bit and I already lug around a heavy bag with a laptop, so the idea of carrying around a journal doesn’t appeal to me. Instead, since I always have my phone with me, I use the notes section on my phone. To be completely transparent, I don’t write a gratitude every day. I turn to my gratitude list if I am having a bad emotional day, and noticing that my thoughts are turning toward the negative, or focusing on what I don’t have. That’s when I open the notes section of my phone, review the list and then add some new gratitudes.
Like turning the channel on the TV, you can shift the programming of your mind by turning your thoughts to what you have, rather than what you have not. You can’t control the thoughts that flip through your mind, but you can control what you dwell on. Don’t linger on the thoughts that illicit fear, jealousy, resentment or bitterness. Acknowledge those thoughts, but don’t pitch a tent and camp there! Move on! Focus on what’s good in the world – particularly your world. We all have things we can be grateful for. My mom’s life has changed dramatically in a short amount of time, and she has told me that she feels like a prisoner in her own body because of the physical abilities her diagnosis has stolen from her. Some days she feels sad and disappointed at what she has lost. She acknowledges it, but she doesn’t dwell on it. Every day she turns her focus to what she has, rather than what she has not. And she radiates joy.
If you don’t like to write or the idea of keeping a gratitude list or writing gratitude letters seems like just another task you’re obligated to complete, then simply tell someone you are grateful for them. Watch their face light up, and maybe their prefrontal cortex too, as your gratitude rubs off on them, and they follow suit to keep the gratitude train going. If no one is around, try talking to God. He’s always available. I talk to God every day. And I make a habit of not just telling him what I need, but what I am grateful for. It is truly a brain changer. I can attest I am calmer in the face of stress when I am practicing gratitude in the form of prayer. And who couldn’t use a little extra calm in today’s stress-filled world?
So, when should you start? Why not now? Wrap up your day by telling one person something or someone you are grateful for. If Thanksgiving is your favorite holiday, when you practice gratitude, every day can be Thanksgiving Day. If it’s not your favorite, find something you are grateful for about it, and maybe you will enjoy the day more than you ever did before! Gratitude. It’s what’s for dinner. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist!)
I’ll get the gratitude train moving: I am grateful for another Thanksgiving with my mom…and other people I care about too. 😊 What are you grateful for?