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?

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Credit: Jean-David Moreau et al./J. Vertebr. Paleontol.
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