How practicing gratitude rewires your brain for the better

Even when everything sucks, you can still feel thankful. 

  • 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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An organism found in dirt may lead to an anxiety vaccine, say scientists

Can dirt help us fight off stress? Groundbreaking new research shows how.

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Are modern societies trying too hard to be clean, at the detriment to public health? Scientists discovered that a microorganism living in dirt can actually be good for us, potentially helping the body to fight off stress. Harnessing its powers can lead to a "stress vaccine".

Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.

The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.

The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.

The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.

"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.