Gratitude – Positive Psychology’s Secret Weapon

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How Gratitude Can Change Your Life

When was the last time you took a moment to register and reflect upon the things in life you’re grateful for? A good health, happy family life, successful relationship, even the mere ability to get up from the bed every morning… The list of things that can conjure a feeling of appreciation is nearly endless. Yet, we so take them for granted most of the time.

Series of studies by psychologist Robert Emmons Ph.D., a leading gratitude researcher and author of Thanks! : How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier, prove that practicing gratitude by keeping a gratitude journal can considerably increase one’s well-being and life satisfaction.

Science proved that the benefits of practicing gratitude are nearly limitless.  If you continuously count your blessings, you will experience more positive emotions, be able to express more kindness, have deeper relationships, be more productive and sleep better. You may even have stronger immune system and live longer. Simply writing down three of your blessings every day for three weeks will significantly boost your optimism and the effect will last for six months. But how is this possible?

The Science behind Gratitude

How does gratitude work to improve our mental health? Many studies over the past decade have proved that people who regularly practice gratitude tend to be happier and healthier.

But does gratitude benefit people with mental health concerns?

Most gratitude-related studies so far have been conducted with healthy, well-functioning individuals. Researchers Joel Wong, Ph.D. and Joshua Brown, Ph.D. wanted to check whether gratitude is beneficial for people who struggle with mental health issues, and if so, how? They decided to address these questions in a study that involved nearly 300 college students who were seeking mental health counseling at a university. The majority of them struggled with symptoms related to anxiety and depression.

Researchers randomly assigned the participants in three groups, where one group was asked to write a gratitude letter to another person each week for three weeks (with no obligation to send it), while the second group got the instruction to write about negative feelings and experiences. The third group did not do any writing task. All three groups continued receiving counseling services during those three weeks.

Their study showed that compared with those who wrote about negative experiences or only received counseling, participants who wrote the letters of gratitude reported much better mental health 4 weeks and again 12 weeks after their writing activity ended. This means that not only healthy, but also people who struggle with mental health concerns could benefit from gratitude exercise.

In addition, it proved that gratitude exercise combined with psychological counseling gives better results than counseling alone.

However, that’s not all. To their astonishment, researchers found that results of their study also indicated lasting effects of gratitude on our brain and the power to release our negative emotions

What Does Gratitude Do to Our Brain?

Different studies, including the aforementioned suggested long-term positive effects of gratitude to our brain.

Three months after the research was done, participants underwent brain scans. During these scans individuals participated in another gratitude task where they were given a certain amount of money by a person they called ‘benefactor’. They were asked afterwards whether they would like to donate a certain amount of money to charity as a way to express their gratitude. Their brain activity was registered during the whole process.

People who gave away money demonstrated a specific pattern of activity in their brain. When these people felt more grateful, their brain showed greater neural sensitivity in the medial prefrontal cortex, which is the brain area associated with learning and decision making. Feeling grateful created more relaxed body state and led to a feeling of social bonding.

What was incredible is that this effect on participants’ brain was found three months after they wrote gratitude letters. This shows that simply expressing gratitude may have lasting effects on our brain. It also suggests that practicing gratitude may help train the brain to be more sensitive to experiencing gratitude – counting your blessings makes it easier to notice and count them down the line. In that way gratitude contributes to our better mental health over time.

Another research by Prathik Kini and colleagues at Indiana University examined how practicing gratitude may alter brain function in people suffering from depression. What they found is also that gratitude may provoke structural changes in medial prefrontal cortex, likewise the previous study.

Gratitude and Cognitive Reprogramming

According to numerous research, our brain shows tendency to react more strongly to negative stimuli then to the positive ones. Thus consistent count-your-blessings-exercise may be very important in reducing negative thoughts. A few things that you can do daily to reprogram your mind to be positive include:

  1. Count three blessings before sleep. Each night before you fall asleep, try to remember three things that you feel grateful for.
  2. Keep a gratitude journal. Start your days writing down at least three things you are thankful for. This will increase your optimism, energy and enthusiasm.
  3. Control your thoughts. Remember that you can control your thoughts. Therefore, decide not to pour unpleasant, negative thoughts and projections into your brain. Feed your brain only with good things.
  4. Enforce positive affirmations. Different studies showed that positive affirmations can effectively re-wire the brain. The way our brain filters incoming incentives may result in more positive mood. Practice positive affirmations every day. Write a list of things you want to improve in your life and mark positive statements for each item on your list. Post them around your home and go through them often. Therapy that proved the ability to successfully change the patterns in our brain is cognitive behavioral therapy of affirmations.

Gratitude definitely doesn’t take much, yet it gives a lot in return. Appreciation of what is valuable to us cultivated as the habit of being grateful can boost our self-control, increase optimism, strengthen our interpersonal relationships – in short, drastically improve our physical and mental health.

 

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