Updated: Jun 30, 2021
Your Negative Brain
Our brain evolved to have a negativity bias, so, we instinctively look for, find, and fixate on problems and danger. In today’s world, A LOT of ‘danger’ comes from work, personal and professional stressors. We hyper-focus on things that are going wrong, people who challenge us and relationships which may not be working so well. This overstimulates our amygdala which creates a stress response, and long term, this is not good for our health. A great way to help reduce this phenomenon is by practicing gratitude, which is n exercise in focusing on the positive.
Benefits of Gratitude
Research has shown that gratitude can improve general well-being, increase resilience, strengthen social relationships, and reduce stress and depression. The more grateful people are, the greater their overall well-being and life satisfaction. They’ll also have stronger immune systems, lower blood pressure, better sleep (and better waking). They’ll be more alert and more generous, compassionate, and happier. Grateful people also have a greater capacity for joy and positive emotions. Gratitude literally re-wires our brain by building and reinforcing neural pathways which facilitate the perception and feeling of gratitude. The mechanism is geeky but, in short, the more you practice it the easier it gets! Also, even practicing it for a short time has lasting benefits.
The Science of Gratitude
A paper entitled “The Effect of Gratitude Expression on Neural Activity” found that “…a simple gratitude writing intervention was associated with significantly greater and lasting neural sensitivity to gratitude. Also, subjects who participated in gratitude letter writing showed both behavioral increases in gratitude and significantly greater neural modulation by gratitude in the medial prefrontal cortex three months later.” Researchers described the changes in the brain as ‘profound’ and ‘long-lasting’. One of the changes was a greater sensitivity to gratitude.
Researcher Rick Hanson has found that holding (focusing on) an experience for 20 seconds is long enough to create positive structural changes in the brain. Gratitude gives space for the positive experience to expand, or for us to ‘re-experience’ it, which activates the parts of our brain which produce the positive side-effects. So, Only 20 Seconds? Wow, that might be impressive but is 20 seconds, one time really enough? Ideally, what you want to do is make sure you are practicing gratitude daily and with novelty and sincerity. You should be making it an active process whereby you are genuinely engaged with the exercise and are able to re-imagine the positive experience and generate an authentic feeling of gratitude. This cannot be done if you’re in a rush and are treating the exercise as a task to be finished. So, how best to do it?
Gratitude Practices That Change Your Life
Here are some tried and true ways that really work (if you DO them)
Keeping a daily gratitude journal. Write down 3 things in the last 24 hours that you feel genuinely grateful for. Mix it up, write down different things and devote some time to recalling positive experiences. They can be big or small. Even gentle experiences like a good sleep, or nice morning routine can generate the appropriate response in the brain. Aim to do this for 21 days and it will train your brain to see the world in a different way. You will start to notice more positives, opportunities, better people, etc. It actively starts to dampen your amygdala and your inherent negativity bias in favor of better experiences.
Recreate a positive experience. If you had an enjoyable experience throughout the day, even small, spend a few minutes writing every detail you can. As you actively recall positive experiences your brain creates ‘emotional tags’ and labels it as ‘meaningful’ thus, further imprinting into your memory. It’s very interesting because the brain can’t tell the difference between actual and visualized experiences so it can have a double impact. After 21 days it will become a habit and create lasting change.
Write letters or journals. Spend 20 minutes a week writing a letter to someone you’re thankful for or writing an experience in a journal. Whether or not you send it is up to you. The effect of this stays for months after the initial exercise. What this means is that noticing the good now makes it easier to notice the good later. The more good you notice, the happier you’ll be. It’s just the way it works, and practicing gratitude is a simple way to work it.
Thank people you are close to. Whether it is an email, phone call, or text message, think of someone who has helped you, provided value to you or has been a positive influence. Express to them your sincere feelings of appreciation and explain to them the reasons why. This is a sure way to help cultivate better relationships and improve your brain’s capacity to experience more positive states of being.
With ALL this in mind, I think the key to remember here is picking just ONE of these exercises and doing it frequently is enough to produce lasting, and measurable changes in your brain. As a challenge, comment below and let me know which one you chose and the effect it had on you!