How practicing gratitude rewires your brain for the better

Even when everything sucks, you can still feel thankful. 

How practicing gratitude rewires your brain for the better
Photo credit: Serge De Sazo / Gamma Rapho
  • What are we grateful for?
  • What is it that, in these difficult and troubling times, gives us our sense of hope and purpose?
  • And why is it so hard to remember?

Our minds, of course, fall victim to negativity bias. As written about extensively by Rick Hanson in his 2013 book Hardwiring Happiness, negativity bias is our brain's natural home base. We remember “bad" events more than good ones, hang on to that nasty thing our coworker said, and forget the praise our boss gave us.

That structuring was originally created in order to protect us. After all, if we can't remember which berries are poisonous and which aren't, our lives are on the line. But now that's an outdated operating system, as ancient as Windows 95, and we must use the magic of neuroplasticity to rewire our brains. And how do we do that? If it were so easy to rewire our brains, wouldn't everyone be doing it?

It's a practice to take a moment each day to take in natural beauty and reflect on positive events. And like all practices, it takes stamina to stick to it.

But the benefits are well-documented. As covered in the New York Times, “gratitude stimulates the hypothalamus (a key part of the brain that regulates stress) and the ventral tegmental area (part of our “reward circuitry" that produces the sensation of pleasure)." Forbes covered the top seven scientifically validated benefits of gratitude, citing that it improves mental and physical health.

There are several ways to practice gratitude. One is a gratitude journal, in which you list five things you are grateful for every day for a year, and never repeat the same thing. Once you get the bigger, more obvious things out of the way, you start to reflect on the less-noticeable things like your breath, or having a bed to sleep in every night, or how happy it makes you to see your friend smile.

Another method, one practiced by Eleanor Roosevelt, was to take time each day to write a kind note to two or three people. The method Hanson offers is this: Sit in a quiet place, close your eyes, and focus on a positive event or person. Notice where in your body you feel it, and imagine it physically — for example, if your heart feels full, imagine it full of light and how the light spills out and all around. Stay with it. Spend a couple of minutes on the memory. Do this practice every day and you will gradually rewire your brain.

A focus on positive states every day can change your life. That's something to celebrate all year round. Take in the good, and keep it going. Check in with yourself next year and see how much better you feel having noticed it all. To quote Mary Oliver:

I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

What does kindness look like? It wears a mask.

Northwell Health CEO Michael Dowling has an important favor to ask of the American people.

Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • Michael Dowling is president and CEO of Northwell Health, the largest health care system in New York state. In this PSA, speaking as someone whose company has seen more COVID-19 patients than any other in the country, Dowling implores Americans to wear masks—not only for their own health, but for the health of those around them.
  • The CDC reports that there have been close to 7.9 million cases of coronavirus reported in the United States since January. Around 216,000 people have died from the virus so far with hundreds more added to the tally every day. Several labs around the world are working on solutions, but there is currently no vaccine for COVID-19.
  • The most basic thing that everyone can do to help slow the spread is to practice social distancing, wash your hands, and to wear a mask. The CDC recommends that everyone ages two and up wear a mask that is two or more layers of material and that covers the nose, mouth, and chin. Gaiters and face shields have been shown to be less effective at blocking droplets. Homemade face coverings are acceptable, but wearers should make sure they are constructed out of the proper materials and that they are washed between uses. Wearing a mask is the most important thing you can do to save lives in your community.
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