Imagine if you woke up this morning with only the things you were grateful for yesterday…
Would you be in the presence of loved ones? Would you have your most cherished possessions? Would you be in your home, or even your body?
Would you be feeling even more grateful, or experiencing profound regret for taking everything and everyone for granted?
Thankfully, this is a hypothetical scenario merely meant to put things into perspective.
However, I’m sure most of us would have woken up with very little, if anything at all. It’s not because we are ungrateful, but because we get accustomed to what we have and we forget that most of our luxuries are a privilege, not a right. Even some of the rights we do have, others do not.
Many of us who have clean, drinkable water take it for granted… It has never been a struggle for us to get it, it flows out of our faucets seemingly endlessly… but across the globe, approximately 2 billion people do not have the same privilege.
Fortunately, if you are reading this, it means that not only did you wake up this morning, but you were granted the added bonus of having access to the internet so you could read this life-changing blog. You have been given another chance at living in a state of gratitude.
It’s easy to focus on the negative aspects of our lives and lament about everything we don’t have or what we “should'' be doing instead.
From an evolutionary perspective, we are wired to remember the negative, painful and/or potentially threatening.
For example, if we lived in a hunter-gatherer society and you and I were searching for food and we came across beautiful berries and ate them, and one of us got sick or died, it’s imperative that we remember those toxic berries for the survival of our tribe. Whereas, if the berries were delicious, that's all well and good, but not life-changing.
Hyper-focusing on the negative can undermine us, but understanding the evolutionary relationship with the negative is empowering. It’s also easy to realize and appreciate all the great things we DO have once we shift our mindsets.
When we start focusing on the positive and decide to live in gratitude, our brains actually change structurally and we reap the benefits of improved brain function.
Benefits of Living in Gratitude
Every second of the day, our neurons, which are the nerve cells that make up the brain, are communicating with each other through neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters are essentially chemical messages that are sent between neurons and throughout the body, telling the body how to work. Some of the common neurotransmitters we often hear about are serotonin and dopamine, which also act as “happiness” hormones. When you have a positive thought, memory, or experience, the brain releases dopamine and serotonin, increasing feelings of happiness and contentment. On the other hand, cortisol, the primary stress hormone, is released when you experience negativity.
Intentionally thinking happy thoughts and emotions, such as gratitude, is a powerful way to boost serotonin and dopamine levels, which work synergistically. One study found that serotonin actually enhances the production of dopamine and inhibits the production of cortisol.
These neurotransmitters and hormones have a significant influence on our physical health as well. According to the Cleveland Clinic, serotonin plays a role in digestion, sleep, wound healing, bone health, and sexual health. Low serotonin can be linked to depression, anxiety, sleep problems, digestive problems, panic disorders, and phobias.
Science has also found that thinking more positively has a favorable impact on the brain and even changes the brain’s structure.
How Gratitude Changes the Brain
When any pattern of thought is interrupted and replaced by another pattern, over time the structure of the brain actually changes due to a process called neuroplasticity.
Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to adapt. There are two types of neuroplasticity: functional and structural. Functional neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s ability to reorganize certain functions and connections from a damaged area of the brain to an undamaged area following injury. If someone has a stroke, their brain will change and adapt through functional neuroplasticity in an attempt to return to full functionality.
Structural neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to physically change in structure as we collect new information and experiences. When our neurons send signals to each other, they are constantly building and tearing down connections between each other. The more we use certain neurons, the stronger the connections become. For example, if you think the same recurring thought every day, the connections between those neurons continue to get stronger. In contrast, if we don’t have a need for specific information, those neural pathways eventually weaken and die. This process allows us to learn and store memories and experiences. At any moment throughout our lives, there are billions of neurons firing in our brains.
A simple way to remember this is through Hebb’s Law.
Hebb’s Law states that, “What fires together, wires together.”
This is simply referring to the firing of neurons and the wiring of connections between them. The more you engage in a thought, belief, or behavior, the stronger those neural connections become. Ziva.com uses the analogy that if you’re forging a new path through the woods, the first trip is the most challenging and you have to be deliberate. But the more times the path is traveled, the more defined it becomes and the easier it is to follow it.
This process happens naturally as we learn new things and have new experiences, but we can also consciously stimulate it. Most of us are on autopilot, and so in order to create change, we must interrupt those patterns by changing the thoughts and beliefs on the subconscious level. Whatever belief you take on, that belief will go unchallenged until you learn and integrate a new belief.
When we have recurring positive thoughts, we are rewiring our brains and reshaping our brain structure to think more positively. When you learn new things, you are quite literally “exercising” your brain.
This is the brain science behind why our thoughts, beliefs, expectations, and interpretations of past experiences are so powerful.
When old neural connections that are negative and self-destructive die and new, more beneficial pathways are formed and strengthened, positive change will manifest in all areas of your life.
“Be thankful for what you have, you’ll end up having more. If you concentrate on what you don’t have, you will never ever have enough.”
How to Practice Gratitude
Keep it simple. Practicing gratitude doesn’t have to take extra time and resources. Simply taking a moment to feel grateful for a person, item, or situation is a powerful way to experience the benefits of gratitude. You may discover that the secret to being grateful lies in appreciating the little things.
For example, when you are running behind schedule and you catch a green light, take a moment to appreciate your good timing. I recently heard the term “glimmer,” which refers to those small, positive moments throughout your day that make you feel joy, happiness, or gratitude. They are essentially the opposite of a “trigger.” Eventually, it will be second nature to look for the “glimmers” in every situation, and you may find yourself at the next red light feeling grateful that you have a car at all.
Other ways to practice gratitude:
1. Reflect. Spending 5 minutes a day reflecting on what you are grateful for, and thinking of as many things as you can. Sit or lay in a relaxed position, take a few deep breaths, and simply go through your day, recounting as many positive aspects as possible. Don’t rush through this process, as it is meant to be enjoyable. As you recall all the people, thoughts, feelings, and experiences that you are grateful for having that day (or whenever), your brain will release dopamine and serotonin, boosting your mood and leaving you feeling fulfilled.
2. Keep a gratitude journal. If you prefer to write down your thoughts, keep a gratitude journal. Practice step one, and write down everything you can think of. Do it before bed, in the morning, or midday whenever you have some downtime to reflect. Rather than viewing it as another mundane task, find the joy in having a grateful heart.
“A grateful heart is a magnet for miracles.”
3. Put things in perspective. It may help to think back to a difficult time in your life when you didn’t have the people or things you have now. At that time, did you wish you had what you have now? Try to recall the thoughts and feelings that were going through your mind during that time, and think about how far you have come.
4. Express your gratitude. Although living in a state of gratitude can be a solo journey focused on your personal mindset, it’s also important to share it with others. Being appreciative for others is an essential part of building and maintaining positive, healthy relationships. Say thank you to others as often as you can.
5. Thank yourself. When thinking about everything you are grateful for, don’t forget to list yourself. Gratitude doesn’t have to be an outward emotion that you project onto others… It should also be an emotion that you feel towards yourself. Among all the people who have been there for you throughout your life, you have been there for yourself 100% of the time. Say thank you to yourself and be proud of the accomplishments you have made. If that’s particularly hard for you, try transposing yourself onto a loved one, such as a child in your life or a beloved sibling, where everything remains the same about you, but you are now that loved one instead of yourself… What are the things that you would want them to feel grateful for about themselves? It can be so much easier to recognize things to be grateful for, positive characteristics, and behaviors when it's a loved one instead of yourself, so give this strategy a try and notice the difference.
Having this optimistic attitude about life can be undoubtedly difficult, especially when going through painful and traumatic experiences that make it hard to see the “Light”. The more you practice rewiring those negative thought patterns and building the neural connections that help you think more positively naturally, the easier it will become.
But even as your mindset positively shifts, you are still human and some days will be harder than others… Give yourself grace.
Negative emotions are a natural part of our human experience, so the problem isn’t having them, but it can be how long you stay mired in them and how much you attach to them. You can recognize that you’re experiencing negative thoughts or emotions, but developing the tools to decide that you don’t have to stay there is a very empowering thing. You will inevitably fail at times, but that is just a part of the journey… Every moment is another opportunity to start again.