Are you truly grateful that you woke up this morning? Or are you like most people in western society who take it for granted, along with their health and all that they have? “Gratitude has, for many, been replaced by disappointment, anger, and resentment when these expected ‘blessings’ either do not appear or they disappear” (Passmore & Oades, 2016, p. 43).
You’ve probably heard about gratitude and seen several blogs, articles, social posts, etc., especially around Thanksgiving.
What is Gratitude?
Gratitude is the quality of being thankful, and/or a readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness. Simply, it means to feel thankful for the good things in one’s life. But as you’ll see, it’s much more than that.
Many people struggle with noticing or experiencing the good things in life. Since humans are wired to notice the negative faster than the positive, gratitude, as a continual practice, can help with this immensely.
“When I started counting my blessings, my whole life turned around.”Willie Nelson
So gratitude is focusing on the positives. But we don’t normally do that because we have a built in negativity bias. A negativity bias is focusing on one bad thing in a sea of good things. There are people doing good things all around us all the time. Do we stop and notice?
“In ordinary life, we hardly realize that we receive a great deal more than we give, and that it is only with gratitude that life becomes rich.”Dietrich Bonhoeffer
This short but fast-paced and engaging video gives several strategies for growing gratitude.
So making lists of things you are grateful for, looking at it or reciting them daily, expressing gratitude in the moment. That’s all well and good if you want to make a list and feel good for a few minutes.
But that’s not how the brain works.
Gratitude and the Brain
When gratitude is studied in the brain, expressing gratitude to someone for what have done for you does not light things up. Instead, what lights up our brain like a Christmas tree is when we receive gratitude from someone for something we did for them.
Gratitude is part of the pro-social network (vs. defensive network) in our brain. These pro-social neural circuits are in the brain’s mid-prefrontal cortex, which has to do with context. Context is important because it allows us to reinterpret what might normally be bad into something good. Imagine someone throwing cold water on you. Reaction. Now imagine getting into a cold plunge pool. They both involve very cold water, however one was by choice and the other was forced on you. Context.
Gratitude cannot be faked. The “fake it till you make it” trope doesn’t work here, or at least in the brain. It also cannot be the result of, “I want this experience to be positive so I will just think of it that way.”
As well, gratitude cannot be disingenuous. Our brain knows when we are being sincere or not. The health and brain benefits of gratitude do not happen when faking it or being disingenuous.
The Practice of Gratitude
What makes effective gratitude practice? Since it would be difficult to get someone to routinely and genuinely tell you how grateful they are for something you did for them, the next best replacement is… stories.
A story about gratitude is something we can connect to, and our brain loves connections. Finding a story that is meaningful to you in some kind of way gives you something to connect with at any time. Writing down notes about the story, or memorizing parts of it, gives you the ability to recall it and use it as gratitude practice. Your brain will recognize gratitude in the story and take it from there.
This video outlines how to do this, and provides more data on the effect on your brain from this kind of gratitude practice.
So take these practices and stretch your gratitude muscles. You might just be surprised at the results.
“What separates privilege from entitlement is gratitude.”Brene Brown
Passmore, J., & Oades, L. G. (2016). Positive psychology techniques: Gratitude. The Coaching Psychologist, 12 (1). 34-35.